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At least 3000 Kosovars gathered to declare independence from Serbia

At least 3000 Kosovars gathered in downtown Pristina for a pro-independence demonstration as the province’s leaders vowed to declare statehood early next year.

Waving U.S. and Albanian flags and carrying posters that read, "Independence is the only option" and "Europe, show some unity," university students and others marched through the provincial capital of Pristina and gathered near the parliament building to demand statehood.

"No more delays. No more deals," student leader Burim Balaj told the crowd, urging the international community to recognize Kosovo when it declares independence.

Kosovo is widely expected to announce early in 2008 that it will formally break away from Serbia, but has vowed not to do so without U.S. and European Union approval.

Government spokesman Skender Hyseni said a declaration was "not an issue of if, but when." Officials suggested it would come sometime in January or February.

That would start a 120-day internationally supervised transition, during which the U.S. and other countries would recognize the new state and the U.N. would hand off administration to the EU.

It remained unclear whether the province's ethnic Albanian leaders would wait until after Serbian presidential elections, which are tentatively set for Jan. 20. Hyseni said Kosovo "is only going to follow its own roadmap" and would not be pressured into putting off a declaration solely because of the Serbian ballot.

Kosovo's outgoing prime minister, meanwhile, urged the EU on Monday to bring the province's eight-year quest for statehood to a quick conclusion.

The EU must "recognize the need for immediate and permanent conclusion of this process," Agim Ceku told The Associated Press in an interview as foreign ministers of the 27-nation bloc in Brussels, Belgium, discussed the crisis.

Ceku sought to reassure Europe of what he called "our commitment to multi-ethnicity, our commitment to democracy, our commitment to international supervision of independence, our commitment to international partnership and our commitment to a European future."

Although the province formally remains part of Serbia, it has been run by the U.N. and NATO since 1999, when NATO airstrikes ended a Serbian crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists. Serbia has offered Kosovo broad autonomy but insists it remain part of Serbian territory, and Russia has threatened to block its independence drive at the U.N. Security Council.

"Serbia has a choice: Going into the future together with us, or going back to the past alone. We hope that they will make the right choice," said Ceku, who is preparing to hand over power to former rebel leader Hashim Thaci, whose party won elections last month.

Later Monday, Serbia's minister for Kosovo, Slobodan Samardzic, planned to open a branch office on the Serb side of the ethnically divided northern city of Kosovska Mitrovica - long a flashpoint for violence between the province's ethnic Albanian majority and its minority Serbs.

Samardzic also was to tour Serb villages and meet with U.N. officials. But the opening of a Serbian government office inside Kosovo was seen as a clear territorial claim by Belgrade, which sees Kosovo as the heart of its ancient homeland and refuses to let it go.

On Sunday, Kosovo's leadership issued a statement pledging to refrain from violence and "do the utmost to ensure Kosovo remains calm" as NATO beefs up its presence in the volatile province, fearing revived hostility between the rival sides.

Envoys from the EU, U.S. and Russia reported to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon last week that four months of internationally mediated talks had ended in a stalemate. The Security Council is set to take up the issue on Dec. 19.

The U.S. and most EU countries have signaled they will recognize an independent Kosovo, but Cyprus has refused, fearing it would set a bad precedent by encouraging separatist movements elsewhere in Europe and worldwide.

"For us, independence is very important," said Agim Kastrati, 19, a law student who marched Monday.

"It means a new identity and a new future for Kosovo," he said.

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