PRISTINA, Serbia, Oct 10 (Reuters) - Independence by the end of this year is the only acceptable outcome for the people of Kosovo, Prime Minister Agim Ceku said on Tuesday.
Serbia must not be allowed to delay the process by creating doubt and division among major powers who drove its forces out of the province seven years ago, he told Reuters.
"Nothing less than independence will be acceptable," the 45-year-old former general said. "Independence is the only sustainable, long-lasting solution that will bring stability to the region."
Kosovo has been under United Nations protection, in a state of legal limbo, since 1999 when NATO troops took control.
Eight months of U.N.-mediated talks on its future have only exposed the irreconcilable positions of Serbia and Kosovo's 90 percent Albanian majority, and the U.N. is expected to impose a solution this year which could well be independence.
Ceku said Serbia's counter-strategy was to discredit U.N. envoy Martti Ahtisaari, delay a decision, divide the six-power Contact Group and thereby destabilise Kosovo in a bid to prove the Albanians were not ready for independence.
"The people of Kosovo will prove Kosovo is ready. Kosovo is ready now," the prime minister said. "We have proven that we are going to be a modern, democratic country, a secular country."
TO DELAY, OR NOT
Western powers leading a force of 16,000 peacekeepers in the province fear delaying a promised decision that is already overdue could fuel Albanian suspicions and might provoke violent unrest. And in any case, delay will not resolve the conflict.
But Ahtisaari and others have raised the possibility of a brief delay. Some Europeans fear amputating Kosovo now could hand victory to ultranationalists in an early Serbian general election expected in 10 weeks.
Britain and the United States, members of the Contact Group with France, Germany, Italy and Russia, insist the year-end deadline still holds. But talk of delay remains in the air.
Ceku was due to have talks in London on Thursday.
"I'm going to tell them that status has to be finished by the end of the year and it has to be independence," he said.
If Kosovo is confronted with a delay, Ceku said there were options under discussion. A referendum would underscore the unanimous Albanian demand for self-determination, and there could be political pressure for a declaration of independence.
"If we come to that stage when we have to declare, we will make sure no one will be surprised by this," he said, stressing that Kosovo's independence was a "joint project" with friendly powers, not a unilateral enterprise.
Ceku had no sympathy for Serbia's insistence that Kosovo, where Serb history goes back hundreds of years, must remain within its sovereignty, albeit with wide autonomy.
The late Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic had cancelled Kosovo's autonomy in Yugoslavia in order to oppress the Albanians, said the former guerrilla commander who fought Serb forces as NATO bombed Yugoslavia to compel their withdrawal.
"Milosevic chose war. We fought together with NATO and we won. That's it, Kosovo is free now," Ceku said.
He dismissed warnings that independence for the territory of 2 million people would lead on to demands for union with neighbouring Albania and stir separatism among Albanians in Macedonia, southern Serbia and Montenegro.
"There is only one union we are looking for, and that is the European Union," he said.
(Additional reporting by Shaban Buza and Matt Robinson)