Belgrade, 9 February 2008 – Serbia’s minister for Kosovo suggested Saturday that Belgrade will seek to keep control over Serb-populated areas after the predominantly ethnic Albanian province declares independence.

Slobodan Samardzic, Serbia’s minister for Kosovo, said Friday that Belgrade had information indicating that Kosovo will unilaterally declare independence on Feb. 17.

Western officials said they expected the move a day later, and Kosovo’s prime minister, Hashim Thaci, did not confirm or deny Samardzic’s statement but said Kosovo’s split from Serbia was “a done deal.”

On Saturday, Samardzic said “all should be done for the Serbs to remain on their land and live safely as citizens of Serbia after possible unilateral independence declaration” — a stance that seemed to set the two sides up for more tension and a de-facto division of the disputed territory.

Hard-line Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, meanwhile, called any independent Kosovo a “false state” that Serbia would never recognize.

“Kosovo will always be Serbia,” he said Saturday.

“Kosovo has no price,” Kostunica added, rejecting the deployment of an EU mission in Kosovo as “legal violence” against Serbia.

Serbia strongly opposes independence for the separatist southern province, which it considers its historic heartland. The government in Belgrade has said it would ignore the move and retaliate against the countries that recognize Kosovo’s statehood.

Serb leaders in Kosovo also said earlier in the week that they would reject any declaration nof independence and set up their own institutions, including a parliament.

On Saturday, the influential Serbian Orthodox Church, which has hundreds of ancient monasteries and churches in Kosovo, warned that “granting independence to Kosovo would turn it into a long-term … wound, not only in the Balkans, but the whole of Europe.”

The United States and most EU nations support Kosovo’s statehood, saying the U.N.-run province, where ethnic Albanians make up 90 percent of the population of 2 million, is a special case.

Traditional Serbian ally Russia opposes statehood for Kosovo, fearing that it would set a precedent worldwide. Serbia’s EU neighbors Bulgaria and Romania also are opposed because they fear a destabilization of the Balkans, still reeling from the bloody civil wars of the 1990s.

President Boris Tadic, speaking in Germany on Friday to a gathering of the world’s top security officials, urged more international talks.

“Serious negotiations are needed to protect the Serbs in Kosovo as well as our holy sites, ” he said. “Serious negotiations are needed to continue the international presence in Kosovo. And, surely, serious negotiations are needed if we hope to build a stable, democratic and multiethnic society in our southern province.”

Kosovo has been run by the United Nations and NATO since 1999, when a NATO launched an air war to force Serbia to end a crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists.

Source: AP