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Kosovo PM warns against delaying independence

Written by: Staff

PRISTINA, Serbia, Nov 20 (Reuters) Kosovo is hungry for independence and further delay will only hold up reform across the Balkans, according to the prime minister of the breakaway Serbian province.

Western powers and Russia decided this month to push back a decision on Kosovo's status, due this year, until after a Serbian parliamentary election on January 21.

''Kosovo is hungry for independence, Kosovo is ready for independence, and now is not the time to stop the clock,'' Agim Ceku wrote in the Wall Street Journal today.

''Just as it seemed that the Balkans were finally turning the corner, we are instead entering another period of stagnation, delay and uncertainty.'' Diplomats say the UN-run province is heading for a form of independence under continued international oversight. The decision to delay was taken to aid pro-Western forces in Serbia, who face a challenge from popular ultranationalists.

Independence would come as a blow to Serbia, the ethnic Albanian former guerrilla commander said, but moderate Serbs were losing interest in the territory, claimed by Belgrade as the cradle of the nation.

''''Only those desperate for cheap, nationalist rhetorical points claim to care about it,'' Ceku said.

Ceku was in Italy today as part of a weeks-long diplomatic drive to soothe concerns that independence for Kosovo could set a worrying international precedent.

He heads to Moscow later this month to lobby Serbia's strongest ally in its fight to keep hold of the province.

Ceku said expectations among Kosovo's two million ethnic Albanians were high, more than seven years since NATO's first ''humanitarian'' air war to halt the killing and expulsion of Albanian civilians by Serb forces.

Ten thousand died and the United Nations took control.

UN officials in Kosovo fear that prolonging the uncertainty will only feed suspicion among Albanians and bring extremists on to the streets. The remaining 100,000 Serbs would almost certainly bear the brunt of violent protests.

''Kosovo needs clarity to complete reforms and to attract vital international investments, but also so that our people -- and especially our Serb minority -- can escape the debilitating worries and uncertainty and start to build a future,'' said Ceku.

Only once Kosovo's future is settled can the countries of the Balkans truly reform and move towards the European Union, he said.

''Social and economic progress in the region will be the big losers if we don't make the bold step forward to independence.'' REUTERS AB BST1726

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