( AP ) - A former rebel leader was elected Kosovo's prime minister Wednesday, vowing that the province is only weeks away from independence and calling on Serbia to give up its claim to the territory.
Kosovo's parliament elected Hashim Thaci by a vote of 85-22 to head a coalition government that will try to steer the province through a declaration of independence, a course supported by the United States and some European governments, but fiercely opposed by Serbia and Russia.
"It's an issue of weeks and Kosovo will be an independent, sovereign and democratic country," Thaci told The Associated Press in an interview in his residence in the provincial capital, Pristina. " Independence is everything for us. We have sacrificed - we deserve it."
Still, he cautioned that no move would be made without the approval of the United States and the key European nations. "Kosovo will do nothing without Washington and Brussels. No unilateral actions," Thaci said, referring to the seat of the European Union in Belgium.
Kosovo, though legally part of Serbia, has been under U.N. and NATO control since NATO's 78-day bombing campaign in 1999 ended a Serb crackdown on separatist ethnic Albanians.
International envoys last year failed to resolve the issue of whether Kosovo should become independent or remain part of Serbia. Russia has previously threatened to veto any U.N. Security Council measure that allows Kosovo to become a state.
Thaci, 39, is Kosovo's fifth prime minister since the southern Serbian province came under U.N. administration. His rise is likely to cause a stir in Serbia, which has accused him of war crimes while he led the Kosovo Liberation Army against troops loyal to the late Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic.
But Thaci sought to reassure the province's Serb minority that it would be safe in an independent Kosovo, and he called anew on Belgrade to relinquish the territory.
"Kosovo will be a country for everybody," Thaci said in the interview.
During a speech to parliament, he appealed to the Serbian minority to consider Kosovo their home and in a symbolic move, switched from speaking Albanian to Serbian.
"Kosovo is a homeland to all its people," he said in Serbian.
No independence declaration is likely before Serbia's presidential elections, which begin with a first round Jan. 20 and are likely to involve a runoff on Feb. 3.
Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leaders have refused to set a date for their declaration of independence, but they have hinted they would press forward with secession early this year.
"Our aim is to make Kosovo independent in the first part of this year," Thaci told lawmakers. "We will make our dream and our right come true soon. ... Kosovo will be independent."
Thaci emerged as the political leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army in 1997 as it claimed responsibility for a series of attacks on Serbian authorities.
Milosevic's discriminatory politics and his brutal campaign against civilians as he tried to wipe out the rebels boosted support for the insurgency among ethnic Albanians and pushed it to a full-blown war in 1998.
Known by the nom de guerre "The Snake," Thaci came to be compared to Gerry Adams, leader of the political wing of the now-disbanded Irish Republican Army.
His Democratic Party of Kosovo won the most votes in November elections, but must govern alongside its main opponent, President Fatmir Sejdiu's Democratic League of Kosovo. Sejdiu was re-elected president earlier Wednesday, defeating an opposition candidate in the third round of the secret vote.
Both parties support statehood for the province, whose population is more than 90 percent ethnic Albanian. The newly elected Cabinet took an oath amid thunderous applause.
But the partnership is likely to be uneasy due to bitter rivalries inherited from the war. Western diplomats have urged a broad coalition to guarantee stability as Kosovo moves closer to independence.
Jointly, the parties will hold 62 seats in the province's 120-seat assembly.
Thaci's party will control seven out of 15 ministries, including finance, economy, energy and education.
Sejdiu's party will run five ministries, including justice and health.
Minority ethnic Serbian parties will run the Social Welfare Ministry and the department dealing with the return of ethnic Serbian refugees who fled Kosovo after the war.