Belgrade, 8 February 2008 – A declaration of Kosovo’s independence by the end of next week looked increasingly likely Friday after Serbia said it had information the “illegal” move would happen on February 17.The province’s prime minister, Hashim Thaci, said that despite Serbia’s challenge, Kosovo’s independence was already a “done deal” which had received the backing of around 100 countries.

As the endgame to the fate of the disputed Balkan territory nears its conclusion, tensions mounted in the volatile region, particularly among Serbian nationalists angered by Western support for the move.

In the latest such incident, the Slovenian-run Mercator shopping mall in Belgrade was targeted in a bomb attack that caused damage but no casualties.

Senior Serbian officials have stepped up their rhetoric against Slovenia in recent weeks, criticising its role as the current president of the European Union, which along with Washington supports Kosovo’s independence.

Belgrade had “received more and more significant information” that “Thaci will illegally declare the unilateral independence of Kosovo on February 17,” said Serbian Minister for Kosovo Slobodan Samardzic.

“The EU cannot expect that just before the unilateral declaration of independence announced for the 17th of February, that Serbia itself signs for the independence of Kosovo,” he said.

Speaking at a press conference shortly beforehand in the provincial capital Pristina, Thaci said: “It is a done (deal). Everybody knows it. None of the authorities from Belgrade can affect the positive development of a declaration and recognition of the independence of Kosovo.”

“We have confirmations of about 100 countries around the world which are ready to recognise independence immediately after the declaration of independence.”

Diplomatic sources in Pristina have told AFP that Kosovo looks set to make the historic move before a meeting of EU foreign ministers scheduled for February 18.

A US diplomat said independence was likely to be proclaimed on a Sunday, when the UN Security Council does not meet, which fits with the Serbian government information of February 17.

Russia is a permanent member of the Council, where it has warned it will use its veto powers in support of Serbia to block any such declaration.

Belgrade and most Serbs oppose independence for Kosovo, which they consider the cradle of their history, culture and Orthodox Christianity.

The EU is preparing to send a 2,000-strong civilian mission that will “supervise” Kosovo’s independence in spite of opposition from several of its members including Cyprus and Spain.

While EU officials consider February 17 as the probable date, talks between European capitals would “multiply next week” to find a declaration “acceptable by all” at the foreign ministers’ meeting, diplomats in Brussels say.

But in another sign that Kosovo’s looming independence is stoking the flames of Serbian nationalism, some 100 Serbian ultra-nationalists disrupted a Kosovo Albanian art exhibition in Belgrade on Thursday night.

“It’s more than a clear signal what Serbia will be faced with if it fails to keep on its European integration path,” a group of non-governmental organisations said in a letter to Serbian President Boris Tadic, Beta news agency reported.

Meanwhile a report in Pristina said the UN mission in Kosovo, UNMIK, has an evacuation plan for its international staff in case the independence declaration sparks violence.

The daily Koha Ditore, known for its reliability, said it had seen a 72-page document describing “all the details of the evacuation of the UNMIK employees, as well as 15 (international) agencies.”

“Of course we have an emergency plan,” UNMIK spokesman Alexander Ivanko told AFP without confirming the report.

The plan reportedly comprises five phases, the last two of which are dubbed “Red 1” and “Red 2” and envisage the complete evacuation of the international personnel.

“Fearing the worst, certain members of the international personnel have already evacuated their families from Kosovo,” said the newspaper.

Kosovo has been under UN administration since 1999, when a NATO bombing campaign drove out forces loyal to late Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic to end a brutal crackdown on the province’s Albanians.

Source: AFP