Page last updated at 17:31 GMT, Sunday, 15 June 2008 18:31 UK

Serbs form rival Kosovo assembly

Kosovo's President Fatmir Sejdiu (left) and parliament speaker Jakup Krasniqi sign Kosovo's constitution in Pristina on 15 June
A low-key ceremony marked the signing of the constitution

Serbia has defied the entry into force of a new Kosovo constitution by setting up a new parliament for minority Serbs.

Slobodan Samardzic, the minister for Kosovo in the outgoing Belgrade government, made the announcement in the divided northern town of Mitrovica.

Kosovo's new constitution ends nine years of UN rule, and hands power to the ethnic Albanian majority.

It comes four months after Kosovo's declaration of independence, backed by

the West but opposed by Russia.

Kosovo's minority Serbs insist the new constitution will not apply to them.

'Historic moment'

The constitution coming into force has provoked renewed hostility from the Serbs, who make up less than 10% of the population, and still consider Kosovo to be part of Serbia.

A Kosovo Serb woman cries at the vandalised grave of her family in Mitrovica. Photo: 14 June 2008
The Serb assembly will co-ordinate the work of elected Serb representatives

Speaking in the Serb stronghold of Mitrovica, Mr Samarzic said the new Kosovan Serb Assembly would hold its first session in two weeks

Its first task was to co-ordinate the work of Serb representatives elected to local councils during Serbian elections last month, but also to have what he called "a representative character, too".

The BBC's Nick Thorpe in Mitrovica said the new Serb assembly represents a serious challenge to the new Kosovan constitution.

He added that internal Serb disagreements over strategy are as important as potential conflicts between Serbs and Albanians in the coming months.

In a first move after the new constitution entered into force, Kosovo President Fatmir Sejdiu signed a package of laws, creating Kosovo's first ministry of defence, army and foreign ministry.

President Sejdiu said it was a "historic moment", marking the end of "Kosovo's cycle of statehood".

Ministers from the ethnic Albanian government took part in a low-key ceremony on Sunday evening, which was broadcast live.

UN role

The EU is to deploy several missions, including a 2,200-strong Law and Justice Mission (Eulex), but Russia has blocked a formal handover from the UN.

Serbia insists that the UN mission should stay in its present form, and act to obstruct independence

Serbian President Boris Tadic said the Eulex mission was welcome in Kosovo, but "under two conditions: that it is preceded by a UN Security Council decision and that it does not implement the Ahtisaari plan, which includes Kosovo's supervised independence".

Mr Tadic was referring to the plan drawn up by former UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari, which envisaged the decentralisation of Kosovo and considerable autonomy for Kosovo Serbs.

The plan - backed by Western countries - has not been formally approved, due to Russian objections.

The Eulex had been due to start its work over the weekend, but Russia has blocked the handover, saying the move has not been approved by the UN Security Council.


Ceremonies mark the constitution coming into force

Pieter Feith, the EU's special representative in Kosovo, said the UN thought it was the right time to hand over power to the Kosovo government.

"We think this is a significant new period that is starting," he said.

"The secretary general of the United Nations has recognised realities on the ground and has decided to reconfigure the United Nations presence here and this will give the government full authority in all its competencies."

He added that it would be part of his role to help the government implement the Ahtisaari plan for the future of Kosovo.

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