M. Continuo

Prayer and protest on eve of Kosovo independence

By Ivana Sekularac

MITROVICA, Serbia (Reuters) - Serbs held a day of prayerand protest on Saturday on the eve of the independence ofKosovo, their cherished southern province that is home to 2million Albanians.

"We are all expecting something difficult and horrible,"Bishop Artemije, the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church inKosovo, told several hundred Serbs at the St Dimitrije churchin the north Kosovo town of Mitrovica.

"Our message to you, all Serbs in Kosovo, is to remain inyour homes and around your monasteries, regardless of what Godallows or our enemies do," he said.

Kosovo's parliament will declare independence on Sunday,almost nine years since NATO went to war to save the province's90-percent Albanian majority from a wave of killings and ethniccleansing by Serb forces trying to crush a rebel insurgency.

The declaration will be made during a session in thecapital Pristina due to begin at 3.00 p.m. (2 p.m. Britishtime), according to the schedule of events leaked to media onSaturday.

A protest march was planned in Belgrade, as Serbs bracedfor the loss of land many consider their religious heartland,steeped in history and site of dozens of centuries-old Orthodoxmonasteries.

A full-page advertisement in Serbian dailies called forprotests on Monday in Belgrade against the "high-risk precedentthat questions the essence and continuity of the Serb people".

"In this fateful and historic moment, Serbia is beinghumiliated and punished," said the ad by the unknown group"Active Center".

"Kosovo, the most precious part of Serbia, is being takenaway. We Serbs are obliged, today more than ever, to showunity, solidarity and responsibility towards this precioussource of our identity, and never give up the fight for itspreservation."

PROVOCATION

"Tomorrow will be a day of order, peace and stateengagement to implement the will of Kosovo's citizens," KosovoPrime Minister Hashim Thaci, an ex-guerrilla leader, toldreporters.

Albanian and U.S. flags flew from cars and shops across theU.N.-run territory as Albanians prepared to celebrate theculmination of a decades-long drive for their own state.

Belgrade, despite the backing of its main big ally Russia,can in reality do nothing to stop independence or Kosovo'srecognition by the West.

Serbia's uneasy coalition government is split over whetherto reject ties with the European Union over the bloc's backingfor Kosovo's independence.

Brussels has approved the launch of a 2,000-strong policeand justice mission for Kosovo that will take over from thecurrent U.N. administration after a 120-day transition.

Commenting on the mission, Serbia's Minister for KosovoSlobodan Samardzic, an ally of nationalist Prime MinisterVojislav Kostunica, said Serbia would "have to question itsties with EU and other states that recognise the independenceof Kosovo".

The commander of NATO peacekeepers in Kosovo, FrenchLieutenant-General Xavier de Marnhac, said the force, KFOR,"will react and oppose any provocation that may happen duringthese days, whether from the Albanian or the Serb side".

The United States and most EU members will recognise thenew state, the last to be carved from the Yugoslavia. They saySerbia relinquished the moral right to rule its people becauseof the brutality against them under the late SlobodanMilosevic.

Serbia rejects the secession and has told Kosovo's 120,000remaining Serbs to do the same. Many of them live in an areaclose to Serbia proper and look set to cement a de factopartition that will weigh on the new state for years.

The Serb-dominated north has promised to reject the new EUmission, fuelling fears it could try to break away.

(Additional reporting by Fatos Bytyci; writing by MattRobinson, edited by Richard Meares)

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