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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Former Rebel Declares Kosovo Victory

PRISTINA, Serbia -- As a rebel leader, Hashim Thaci masterminded the insurgency that ended Serbia's rule over Kosovo. Now he's poised to become not only the province's next prime minister, but the man expected to lead it into statehood.

Thaci declared victory early Sunday before hundreds of cheering supporters after election observers released unofficial tallies showing that his party was the top vote-getter with 35 percent. The Democratic League of Kosovo, Thaci's likely partner in a new coalition government, trailed with 22 percent.

Thaci, 39, is widely regarded as a shrewd politician, who fought hard to come to power. If official results from this weekend's elections confirm his party's victory, it will be the first time ethnic Albanians have trusted a party run by a former guerrilla to run the breakaway province.

"Tonight the clock has turned. A new century has begun," Thaci said. "Kosovo is ready to go forward on the road that will lead us closer to independence."

As prime minister, Thaci said he would declare Kosovo independent "immediately" after Dec. 10, the UN deadline for international mediators trying to negotiate a settlement between Kosovo and Serbia.

Thaci was born in Kosovo's central region of Drenica, regarded as the heartland of the ethnic Albanian armed resistance against Serb authorities.

The area was the scene of a botched Serbian police operation against the compound of an ethnic Albanian family accused of attacks against the authorities in March 1997. The killing of more than 50 members of the family massed support behind the Kosovo Liberation Army, the rebel force bent on ending Serbian rule in the province.

Thaci, who went by the nom de guerre "The Snake," emerged as the political leader of the armed rebel group in 1997 as it claimed responsibility for a series of attacks on Serbian authorities.

A student of history at that time, Thaci and his rebel comrades challenged pacifist leader Ibrahim Rugova's policy of nonviolence.

Former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic's discriminatory politics and his brutal campaign on civilians as he tried to wipe out the rebels boosted ethnic Albanian support for the insurgency and pushed it into a full-blown war in 1998. The fighting that ensued placed Kosovo high on the agenda of the international community.

Dressed in jeans, shirt and sunglasses, Thaci roamed villages where the KLA came to challenge the control of Serbian authorities in the summer of 1998. Soon after, he was included in talks to end the war at a U.S.-backed peace conference in France.

Thaci took some persuading to sign a compromise agreement that did not guarantee independence. At one point he broke off the talks and flew back to Kosovo to calm down his fellow fighters, who were angered at his performance.

After winning their support, he returned and signed the accord.

The talks failed after Belgrade refused to sign the deal to withdraw all military and police forces, prompting NATO to launch a 78-day air war against Yugoslavia.

The bombing forced Serb troops out of the province and installed a UN administration to govern the province alongside a NATO peacekeeping mission.