Co-ordinated move

But Thaci stressed that mainly ethnic-Albanian Kosovo was not planning the action unilaterally.

Independence would be declared "in co-ordination with the European Union and the United States", he maintained.

The independence move has the support of the US and most of the EU's 27 member states, but Belgrade, backed by Russia, is firmly opposed to giving independence to a region it regards as Serbia's historic heartland.

A European diplomat in Brussels, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that there was a "quite good chance" that the declaration of independence would be made "in early to mid-February", after Serbia's ongoing presidential election is completed.

But other European officials are wary of moving too fast.

After Thaci's declaration, another European diplomatic source close to the matter said she was unaware of any acceleration on the independence announcement.

She said that the schedule mooted until now of a declaration in late February or early March still stood.

Rice warning

Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, had warned European nations on Tuesday that there was "some danger in continuing to wait for what needs to be done" on Kosovo's independence.

Rice said there was a danger in delaying
resolving the issue of Kosovo [AFP]
Earlier on Thursday, Thaci held talks with Olli Rehn, the EU enlargement commissioner, who, his spokeswoman Krisztina Nagy said, "is in favour of a co-ordinated process. It is better to resort to diplomatic means than public statements."

The EU has been putting together a police and judiciary mission of around 1,800 personnel which could be deployed to help ease the transition to local rule.

Dmitry Rogozin, Russia's new ambassador to Nato, urged Serbia on Thursday to stand up to Western countries that are ready to back independence for Kosovo, saying such a split by the province would open a "Pandora's box".

Speaking in Moscow, Rogozin told Serbia to "defend your constitution with the means at your disposal".
 
Slovenia, which currently holds the EU's rotating presidency, has made the Kosovo issue one of its top priorities.

Dimitrij Rupel, the country's foreign minister, said on Thursday that the bloc hoped to sign a Stabilisation and Association Agreement with Serbia on closer integration "in the coming days".