"From today, Kosovo begins consultations with key international partners to co-ordinate the next steps to a declaration of independence," Hyseni said. 

"Kosovo and the people of Kosovo urgently need clarity on their future."
 
The statement came as Kosovo Albanians took to the streets of Pristina, Kosovo's capital, calling for an immediate declaration of independence.

Kosovo has been administered by the United Nations since Nato expelled Serb forces in 1999, ending a conflict that killed around 10,000 people.

Court opinion

However, Serbia said that it would ask the UN Security Council to seek an International Court of Justice opinion on the "legality or illegality" of Kosovo's possible independence.

"This would be an important argument in a debate" at the Security Council on December 19, Boris Tadic, Serbia's president, told Serbian state television RTS.
Al Jazeera's Barnaby Phillips said in Pristina that Serbia had indicated that it would use any means necessary, except force, to prevent Kosovo's secession.

"They are looking at, for example, imposing some sort of sanction on whichever nations choose to recognise the new state of Kosovo. They are also looking at the possibility of imposing a trade blockade around the borders," he said.

In a report submitted to the United Nations on Friday, mediators from the United States, European Union and Russia admitted defeat after four months of talks between Pristina and Belgrade.

They had been given until December 10 to find an agreement but Serbia refused to budge from its offer of broad autonomy and the ethnic Albanians would settle for nothing less than full independence.

"No more delays. No more deals," Burim Balaj, the organiser of Monday's rally, said as 3,000 demonstrators gathered outside parliament, setting off firecrackers and waving flags.

Some carried posters that read: "Independence is the only option".

"Independence means so much to us. It means a new identity and a new future for Kosovo," Agim Kastrati, a 19-year-old law student attending the protest, said.

Supervised transition

Some diplomats have suggested independence could be declared as early as January or February.

That would start a 120-day internationally supervised transition, during which the US and other countries would recognise the new state and the UN would hand over administration to the EU.

Foreign ministers from the 27-nation bloc said on Monday that they were close to reaching a common position on the province's future.

"We will move to unity today," Luis Amado, Portugal's foreign minister, said as he arrived to chair the talks. 

At least four states - Cyprus, Greece, Slovakia and Spain -  are hesitant to recognise a unilateral declaration of independence, in part because of the precedent it might set for other separatist movements.
 
But only Cyprus has refused outright, with a spokesman saying that the government would do so even if "almost the entire European Union agreed towards that direction and reacted against our position".

European commitment

Britain, France, Germany and Italy - who along with the United States are ready to back an independence move expected next month - lead a core group of EU nations pushing the independence process forward.

Serbia refused to offer Kosovo anything
more than broad autonomy [AFP]
"Kosovo is in Europe's back yard and it seems to me vital that there is a strong European commitment to lead the international response now that we have passed the December 10 deadline," David Miliband, Britain's foreign minister, said.

The EU is preparing to deploy an 1,800-strong police and civilian mission to fill any vacuum that might be left as the UN withdraws from Kosovo.

The United States also pledged to work closely with its partners to settle the future of Kosovo, reaffirming its backing for "supervised independence".

However, Vuk Jeremic, Serbia's foreign minister, warned that there would be consequences to supporting a declaration of independence.
  
"I hope that we will not come to such a situation where countries of the region or the international community will have to decide on whether they want or do not want to breach long-term the relationship with Serbia," he said.