BADEN, Austria, Nov 26 (Reuters) Kosovo's leaders say they are prepared for resistance from Serbia if last-ditch talks on the province's future in the next two days fail to find a compromise and it declares independence.
''We have nowhere to go and we are ready to face all the challenges,'' outgoing Kosovo Prime Minister Agim Ceku said in the Austrian spa town of Baden, where the talks were due to open today.
Serbia enters the talks knowing it has failed to persuade a significant number of European Union member states to oppose independence for the breakaway Serb province.
Instead, it is focused on what to do when Kosovo declares independence, probably in February, with Western recognition expected within weeks. Some analysts expect a series of obstructive measures such as protests and roadblocks.
''What they are planning to do has nothing to do with what we are aiming to achieve with these talks,'' Ceku told reporters.
''But we are very much aware that with a declaration of independence as a necessary step, we are going to be faced with some challenges.'' Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said at the weekend that ''Serbia needs to be united and show that for us it is illegal and that Kosovo is an integral part of Serbia''.
Recognition by the United States or any other country could not turn an illegal move into a legal one, Kostunica said.
Kosovo has waited eight years for its future status to be decided since NATO military intervention and its handover to UN control in 1999 to stop ethnic cleansing by Serb forces under Slobodan Milosevic.
DIPLOMATIC TUG-OF-WAR The pendulum has swung more unpredictably than the West expected in the long diplomatic tug-of-war that began two years ago, with UN mediated talks that got nowhere.
When envoy Martti Ahtisaari proposed EU-supervised independence as the only viable solution, Serbia enlisted Russia to block the plan in the UN Security Council.
In the ensuing months, it looked as if Serb warnings of long-term chaos in the Balkans were unsettling the EU. At least half a dozen members were against independence, and even all-important Germany was said to be wobbling.
The United States did not waver, infuriating Kostunica and facing down Russia by repeating that the Ahtisaari plan was the best option if the two sides could not reach agreement.
The EU has now rallied. Only Cyprus and Greece remain opposed, EU diplomats say. The rest of the 27-member bloc is ready to accept the EU's new role in an independent Kosovo.
President Boris Tadic says Serbia will use all legal and political means against a ''hostile'' act. Deputy Prime Minister Bozidar Djelic says Serbia is getting ready for ''the blackest scenario''.
No one expects war, but tension will rise and violence cannot be ruled out. One reaction could be the establishment of Serbian-controlled areas in Kosovo, similar to those set up in Bosnia and Croatia 16 years ago, says former US ambassador William Montgomery, now a commentator.
Reuters AK VP0515