Tiny Kosovo — poor, mostly Muslim but feverishly pro-Western — braced itself Saturday for a historic declaration of independence from Serbia, a decade after a war that killed 10,000 people and years of limbo under U.N. rule.
The province's bold bid for statehood, expected Sunday, and its quest for international recognition set up an ominous showdown with Serbia and Russia. Moscow contends the move will set a dangerous precedent for secessionist groups worldwide.
Revelers took to the streets in giddy anticipation. Prime Minister Hashim Thaci — a former leader of the guerrilla Kosovo Liberation Army — marked the eve of the new nation's birth by visiting a village where Serbian troops massacred ethnic Albanians in 1998.
"Tomorrow is a historic day in our effort to create a state," Thaci said in Prekaze, southeast of the capital, Pristina.
Later, in a nationally televised address, he said: "We are getting our independence. Everything is a done deal. The world's map is changing."
Thaci, a former leader of the now-disbanded Kosovo Liberation Army, was expected to call a special session of parliament Sunday afternoon to declare an independent Republic of Kosovo and unveil a new flag and national crest.
In the provincial capital, Pristina, the icing was on celebratory cakes and bottles of "Independence" wine chilled as the new reality sank in.
"Independence is a dream for all the people of Kosovo, and I am very happy, like everybody," said Lumturije Bytyqi, 20.
'Ready to defend our territories'
But Kosovo's small Serb population greeted the secession as though it were an amputation. Many vowed never to accept the loss of a region they consider the heart of their ancestral homeland.
"I'm asking all the Serbs to reject the monster state of Kosovo, and to do everything to prevent its birth," said Marko Jaksic, a Kosovo Serb hard-line leader.
The dancing and drum-beating that pulsed through Pristina — awash in red and black Albanian flags with the distinctive double-headed eagle — contrasted sharply with the gloom gripping the ethnically divided northern town of Kosovska Mitrovica, a Serb stronghold and a flashpoint for violence.
"We are Serbs and this will always be Serbia," said a defiant Djordje Maric, 18. "We are ready to defend our territories at all costs, including with our lives."
Although it is formally part of Serbia, Kosovo has been administered by the U.N. since 1999, when NATO airstrikes ended the late Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic's brutal crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists.
Separation threatens to set off crisis, unrest
Ninety percent of Kosovo's 2 million people are ethnic Albanian — most moderate or non-practicing Muslims, the rest Roman Catholics — and they see no reason to stay joined to the rest of Christian Orthodox Serbia.
With Russia, a staunch Serbian ally, determined to block the bid, Kosovo looked to the U.S. and key European powers for swift recognition as the continent's newest nation. That recognition was likely to come Monday at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels, Belgium.
The EU gave its final go-ahead Saturday to send an 1,800-member mission to replace the current U.N. administration. The mission is designed to help build a police, justice and customs system for Kosovo.
Thaci announced the creation of a new Cabinet ministry to focus on minority rights.
But the imminent independence of the territory threatened to touch off a diplomatic crisis and possible unrest.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, arguing that independence without U.N. approval would set a dangerous precedent for "frozen conflicts" across the former Soviet Union and around the world, pressured the Security Council to intervene.
In the Serbian capital, Belgrade, about 1,000 protesters waved Serbian flags and chanted "Kosovo is the heart of Serbia." Officials ruled out any military response, but warned that Serbia would downgrade relations with any foreign government that recognizes Kosovo's independence.
NATO, which still has 16,000 peacekeepers in Kosovo, boosted patrols in the tense north and in scattered, isolated enclaves where most of the Serbs live in hopes of easing the chances of violence, and international police deployed Saturday to back up local forces.
Some Serbs have suffered reprisal attacks carried out by ethnic Albanians seeking to avenge the bloodshed of the 1998-99 war. There were concerns that edgy Serbs might pack up and leave, but the head of the influential Serbian Orthodox Church appealed to them Saturday to "stay in their homes and guard this holy Serbian land."
Many ethnic Albanian Kosovars, their long-awaited nationhood almost upon them, expressed disbelief that it would actually happen. For others, the joy was tempered by the what lies ahead: Building a multiethnic society and lifting themselves out of poverty and 50 percent unemployment.
But new posters implored people — ethnic Albanians, at least — to relax and enjoy the moment.
"Celebrate with dignity," read the posters, illustrated with bright red hearts.
Ethnic Albanians in Kosovo took to streets to celebrate the declaration of independence from Serbia expected to come this weekend.
People gathered in groups in the outskirts of the province's capital, Pristina, late Friday, dancing in circles to the rhythm of drums and other traditional instruments.
"We are very, very happy, this is really happening," said Ahmet Jashari, an ethnic Albanian in the town of Lipljane who was draped in an American flag. "We have been waiting for this for a long time, for a century."
The jubilant crowds honked car horns and waved flags as they drove by NATO peacekeepers in charge of security. On Friday, the NATO force, known as KFOR, increased its visibility in an effort to prevent any violence.
Parliament expected to act Sunday
Kosovo's leaders have announced no date for a declaration of Kosovo's secession from Serbia — and its own statehood. But the multiethnic Parliament is expected to approve the declaration Sunday and select a flag and a crest, as well.
And celebrations throughout the province were gaining pace Friday.
Shops and houses were decorated with Albanian national flags, hanging beside those of the United States and the European Union, most of whose members support Kosovo's independence.
Officials, too, are ready for the celebrations. An orchestra will perform after the declaration. Fireworks have been planned to mark the moment.
Police have warned that roads will be blocked to control the crowds expected to flow into Pristina.
Ethnic Albanians make up 90 percent of Kosovo's population. The rest are Serbs, most of whom want to keep the province under Belgrade's control.
About 10,000 ethnic Albanians died during the 1998-99 war, in which Serb forces cracked down brutally on the separatists. The conflict ended after NATO bombarded Serb forces for 79 days, bringing Kosovo under UN and NATO control.