Kosovo Albanian leaders said on Monday they will start immediate talks with Western backers towards an independence declaration as the EU came closer to unity in support of the province's drive to secede from Serbia.
With a United Nations deadline for agreement on the future of the breakaway province expiring on Monday, Russia warned any unilateral recognition could trigger problems around the world.
From today, Kosovo begins consultations with key international partners to coordinate the next steps to a declaration of independence, Skender Hyseni, spokesman of Kosovo's negotiating team with Serbia, said in Pristina.
Kosovo and the people of Kosovo urgently need clarity on their future...The institutions of Kosovo will deliver that clarity very soon, he said. He added a declaration would come much earlier than May, referring to one rumored timeframe.
Serbia, firmly against independence, insisted that only the United Nations had the authority to determine Kosovo's future.
That process belongs to the U.N. Security Council and to all countries that are members of the U.N., not to the EU, Serb Deputy Prime Minister Bozidar Djelic said on the sidelines of a conference in Belgrade about EU accession.
In Brussels, where European Union ministers arrived for talks on Kosovo, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt told reporters: There is virtual unity on Kosovo.
Apart from Cyprus, which has enormous problems with this ... all other countries are going in this direction, said Luxembourg's Jean Asselborn of efforts to ensure the bloc is not split as it was over the Balkan wars of the 1990s.
Slovakia, anxious not to encourage separatist moves among its own Hungarian minority, said it too would find it hard to recognize an independent Kosovo but added that the EU could still deploy a planned 1,600-strong police mission there.
The legal ground is the 1244 resolution and that resolution is valid, Foreign Minister Jan Kubis said of the existing U.N. resolution governing international action in Kosovo.
Russia, which backs Serbia's opposition to independence and wants more negotiations, stepped up warnings of the potential fallout from a unilateral declaration.
It will create a chain reaction throughout the Balkans and other areas of the world, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Nicosia after talks there.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told France Inter radio any independence moves should wait until after Serb elections due some time in January, and the EU's chief Kosovo mediator urged Pristina to coordinate with the EU.
This is not a matter of many months, but it is also not just a matter of a few days, Wolfgang Ischinger said.
Major powers in the United Nations Security Council are due to debate Kosovo on December 19, but Moscow has already said it will call for more negotiations -- something the United States and the vast majority of EU states think is pointless.
Cyprus and to a lesser extent Greece have led a group of doubters within the bloc that at one time numbered half a dozen states concerned either because of their proximity to the Balkans or because of separatist movements on their territory.
We are primarily concentrating on the precedent in international law, Cypriot Foreign Minister Erato Kozakou Markoullis said on Sunday, asked by reporters whether its concerns were linked to sensitivities over the decades-old dispute between Greece and Turkey over Cyprus.
In a report to U.N. Secretary-General Ban ki-moon last Friday, mediators from the United States, European Union and Russia said four months of talks had found no compromise on whether Kosovo should be independent or just autonomous.
Kosovo has been in legal limbo under U.N. administration since NATO bombing in 1999 pushed Serbian forces out of the province to end ethnic cleansing against ethnic Albanians.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband told BBC radio NATO might have to reinforce its 16,000-strong KFOR peace force to deal with any outbreaks of violence if tensions spiked between Kosovo's 90 percent ethnic Albanians and its Serb minority.
Leaders of the 27-nation bloc are expected to declare at a summit on Friday that negotiations have been exhausted and that the future of both Serbia and Kosovo lies in the EU.
The plan is for the EU to take over police and justice tasks from the United Nations and appoint a civilian representative in a supervisory role, while NATO troops remain in place.
(Additional reporting by Mark John in Brussels, Michele Kambas in Nicosia and Patrick Worsnip at the United Nations, Francois Murphy in Paris and Jan Lopatka in Ostrava); editing by Paul Taylor and Ibon Villelabeitia)