Belgrade Suggests It May Try to Keep Serb Areas in Kosovo

BELGRADE -- Serbia's minister for Kosovo suggested Saturday that Belgrade would seek to keep control over Serb-populated areas after the predominantly ethnic Albanian province declares independence.

Slobodan Samardzic, Serbia's minister for Kosovo, said Friday that Belgrade had information indicating that Kosovo will unilaterally declare independence on Feb. 17.

Western officials said they expected the move a day later, and Kosovo's prime minister, Hashim Thaci, did not confirm or deny Samardzic's statement but said Kosovo's split from Serbia was "a done deal."

On Saturday, Samardzic said "all should be done for the Serbs to remain on their land and live safely as citizens of Serbia after possible unilateral independence declaration" -- a stance that seemed to set the two sides up for more tension and a de facto division of the disputed territory.

Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, meanwhile, called any independent Kosovo a "false state" that Serbia would never recognize.

"Kosovo will always be Serbia," he said, rejecting the deployment of an EU mission in Kosovo as "legal violence" against Serbia.

Serbia strongly opposes independence for the province, which it considers its historic heartland. Belgrade has said it would ignore the move and retaliate against countries that recognize Kosovo's statehood.

"We are immediately going to cancel this decision and we are going to use all legal and diplomatic instruments in terms of defending ... the territorial integrity and sovereignty of our country," Serbian President Boris Tadic said at a security gathering in Germany.