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Last Updated: Friday, 2 February 2007, 22:26 GMT
Kosovo's decisive step to statehood
By Nicholas Walton
BBC News, Pristina

Ethnic Albanians watch UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari's news conference on TV
Ethnic Albanians overwhelmingly want to break away from Serbia
The main sign that this was an important day for Kosovo was the news crews and television cameras that crowded the streets of the capital, Pristina.

Life for most of the city's people went on as normal as Kosovo made a significant step forward towards statehood.

And for the waiters and cigarette sellers, beggars and shop assistants, everyday life here means trying to make enough money to survive.

At his news conference in Pristina, UN Special Envoy Martti Ahtisaari emphasised that Kosovo's dire economic situation required urgent attention.

For many ethnic Albanians independence is the key to making progress with the economy.

"We need jobs and a future," said one man, passing an imposing statue of Albanian hero, Skenderberg, in bright winter sunshine. "And that comes with independence."

'Difficult to take'

Mr Ahtisaari's proposals are certainly not the final word on independence for Kosovo, but they are a decisive step forward for a population that is now frustrated by the hardships of life in a Serbian province that has been under international administration since 1999.

French KFOR peacekeepers patrol the town of Mitrovica
With emotions running high, KFOR troops are on heightened alert
One old man in a distinctive Albanian Plis hat tried to show journalists the scars on his legs that were the result of violence between the two communities.

There should be no negotiations now, only an independent Kosovo, he argued angrily.

But, for the ethnic Serbs who have lived in what they consider the heartland of their nation for generations, Friday's announcements were difficult to take.

Some said they could see no future for themselves or their families in a Kosovo that was independent from the rest of Serbia.

Others maintained that the international community - led by the United States - was forcing through decisions that they had already made without consulting Serbs.

Cultural safeguards

Martti Ahtisaari was careful to explain the safeguards that would be in place to give security to the Kosovo Serbs and their heritage.

BBC map
More than 40 religious and cultural sites would be protected, and the city of Mitrovica would be split so that the Serbs on the north side of the River Ibar could run their own affairs.

But Kosovo is 90% ethnic Albanian, and it is difficult to see the outcome of any consultation process resulting in anything other than a new European country.

With emotions on all sides running high, the international military force in Kosovo, KFOR, is on guard, aware that in this part of the world that can easily spill over into violence.

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