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 of theircherished religious heartland Kosovo, a loss marking theirfinal defeat in two decades of conflict in former Yugoslavia.

"We are all expecting something difficult and horrible,"Bishop Artemije, the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church inKosovo, told hundreds of Serbs at the St Dimitrije church inthe 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 parliamentary sessionin the capital Pristina due to begin at 3.00 p.m. (2 p.m.British time), according to the schedule of events leaked tomedia on Saturday.

In Belgrade, more than 1,000 people gathered with banners,flags and religious icons to protest against the loss of landmany consider their religious heartland, steeped in history andthe site of dozens of centuries-old Orthodox monasteries.

"We're ready to fight for Kosovo," said protester IvanIvanovic. "Kosovo will be returned to us, we'll never acceptits independence."

A full-page advertisement in Serbian dailies called formore demonstrations against this "punishment and humiliation".

"Kosovo, the most precious part of Serbia, is being takenaway," said the ad by the unknown group "Active Centre".

"We are obliged ... to show unity, solidarity andresponsibility and never give up the fight for itspreservation."

It is unclear how strongly ordinary Serbs will vent theiranger at the final loss of a place that has been mainlyAlbanian for almost a century.


In Kosovo, Prime Minister Hashim Thaci prayed at the gravesof the Jashari family in the village of Prekaz, remembering theMarch 1998 massacre of more than 50 people by Serb forces thatswelled Albanian support for guerrilla war.

"We are on the brink of making official the independence ofKosovo," he said on the snow-swept hillside.

Albanian and U.S. flags flew from cars and shops across theU.N.-run territory as its 2 million Albanians prepared tocelebrate the culmination of a decades-long drive for their ownstate.

Despite the backing of Russia, Belgrade can do nothing tostop independence or Kosovo's recognition by the West. Serbia'suneasy coalition government is split over whether to rejectties with the European Union over the bloc's backing forKosovo.

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, Minister for Kosovo SlobodanSamardzic, an ally of nationalist Prime Minister VojislavKostunica, said Serbia would "have to question its ties" withthe EU and states that recognise Kosovo's independence.

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 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 the northadjacent to Serbia proper and look set to cement a de factopartition that will weigh on the new state for years.

(Additional reporting by Fatos Bytyci and Ellie Tzortzi;writing by Matt Robinson, edited by Richard Meares)