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Kosovo to win full sovereignty in September

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(VIENNA) - Kosovo will finally gain full sovereignty in September, almost five years after breaking away from Serbia, the International Steering Group overseeing its independence announced Monday.

Kosovo had fulfilled its commitments, "thereby setting the scene for ending supervised independence after the ISG's meeting scheduled for September 2012," the group said in a statement after a meeting in Vienna.

Kosovo prime minister Hashim Thaci, who attended the meeting, said it was an "historic day" and a "new step for Kosovo" but Belgrade warned that the decision could pose a risk for ethnic Serbs.

Monday's decision effectively means the end of international administration and supervision of Kosovo, which unilaterally declared independence in 2008, but a NATO-led force and an EU rule of law commission will stay on.

"The international supervision ends as of today," said Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger, who hosted the event.

Kosovo and its two million majority ethnic-Albanian population have been under some form of international administration since a NATO bombing campaign forced Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic's forces out in 1999.

It proclaimed independence from Serbia in February 2008 in a move recognised by over 80 countries including the United States and most European states, but rejected by Belgrade.

The 25-member ISG congratulated Pristina for fulfilling the conditions required by the so-called Comprehensive Settlement Proposal (CSP), "including (passing) laws on cultural and religious heritage, community rights and decentralisation."

"The ISG has determined that the CSP is substantially implemented and authorises the final steps to end supervised independence and to close the International Civilian Office," led by Dutch diplomat Pieter Feith, it said.

The move still needs to be formalised now by the government and parliament in Kosovo.

The steering group -- which besides Austria, includes several EU states as well as Turkey and the United States -- had announced in January that Kosovo had made such progress that the "supervised independence" could be lifted by the end of the year.

On Monday, it said "the principles and spirit" shown so far "need to continue... after ending supervised independence."

The NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping force and European rule of law mission EULEX will remain in place.

But Belgrade said the move was bad news for Kosovo's Serb minority.

"When any international mission in Kosovo leaves, it can mean a greater danger for both Serbs and Serbia," Serbia's state secretary for Kosovo, Oliver Ivanovic, told B92 television.

Until now, ICO chief Feith had the power to annul laws put in place by the ethnic Albanian government and sanction or even sack politicians.

While Kosovo's Serb community initially rejected the ISG, "any foreigner or foreign mission is better" than none at all, as Serbs and Albanians "are not able to function" without international mediation, Ivanovic said.

Behlul Beqaj, a Kosovo political analyst, also warned that international supervision "has not prepared the government for the independent management" of Kosovo.

"Their physical departure does not mean that the local elite is capable of taking over Kosovo," he told AFP, adding that the international partners too were not prepared to entirely hand over control.

"So far they exerted their influence in meetings. From now on they will do it by phone and computers."

Kosovo's independence declaration continues to face opposition from Belgrade, Moscow and Kosovo's ethnic Serbs, who make up about six percent of the population, living mainly in the north on the border with Serbia.

Improving relations with Pristina is a key condition for Serbia to start accession talks with the 27-member European Union.

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