By Shaban Buza
6:40 a.m. June 22, 2005
PRISTINA, Serbia and Montenegro – Prime Minister Bajram Kosumi Wednesday took the first salute from a new "ceremonial guard" of ex-guerrillas from the force he says will soon make up the army of an independent Kosovo.
Dressed in black with yellow braid and belts, the 80-strong guard saluted stiffly at the headquarters of the Kosovo Protection Corps (KPC), the civil emergency force formed in 1999 from the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).
"We see the KPC as the nucleus of the army of the state of Kosovo," Kosumi told reporters after meeting Corps commander Agim Ceku, who twice fought against Serb forces during the 1991-95 Croatian war and later in Kosovo in 1998-99.
"Kosovo in the future needs an army, small in number but well-equipped and founded on European standards," he said.
The ceremonial guard will honor foreign dignitaries visiting Kosovo as diplomacy accelerates toward a decision in the next 12 months on the Albanians' drive for independence from Serbia.
Serb leaders were likely to see it as yet another Albanian attempt to pre-empt talks by setting up as many trappings of statehood as possible before negotiations start.
The 3,000-strong KPC was created in 1999 from the ranks of the guerrilla army that waged a two-year war against Serb forces, eventually aided by NATO which bombed Serbia for 11 weeks to force Belgrade to withdraw its troops.
The United Nations took control of Serbia's southern province and the KLA was transformed into an unarmed disaster response force. But its officers and Kosovo's political leaders have never hidden their intention to make it Kosovo's army.
Serbia says independence is out of the question and has dismissed the KPC as a band of "terrorists."