Leaders in Kosovo say the Serbian province will declare independence soon. As VOA's Barry Wood reports there is disagreement among outside observers over whether this move will promote or endanger stability in the Balkan region.

In lighting a national Christmas tree in the capital of Pristina Wednesday, Kosovo's president, Fatmir Sejdiu, said the province's independence is only days away.

In fact, Kosovo's government is not expected to declare independence until late January at the earliest. All of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leaders favor independence but most say that move needs to be approved by the United States and the European Union.

Serbia says independence for Kosovo would be in violation of a U.N. Security Council resolution, and Belgrade would not recognize it. Kosovo has been run by the United Nations since NATO bombing in 1999 halted Serbia's repression of the 90 percent Albanian majority.

The U.S. government supports a plan drawn up by U.N. mediator Martti Ahtisaari, which recommends independence for Kosovo, but under international supervision to provide protection for Kosovo's ethnic Serbs and other minorities.

Elez Biberaj, an expert on Albanian politics and the EuroAsia division director at Voice of America, told a forum at Washington's Wilson Center that Kosovo independence will promote regional stability.

"The status-quo is not in Serbia's interest, it is not in Kosovo's interest, and it is not in the interest of other neighboring countries," said Biberaj.

Alan Kuperman, a Balkans specialist teaching at the University of Texas, disagrees. He says Kosovo's independence could lead to war. He says the likely flash point is Mitrovica, a Serbian town in northern Kosovo. Kuperman says following a declaration of independence, ethnic Serbian police in the north will discard their Kosovo police uniforms.

"They will take those uniforms off and they will put back on Serbian police uniforms," Kuperman said. "And now you could really have the spark for war, because now you would have Serbian police patrolling inside a nominally independent Kosovo. The Albanian militants in Kosovo would see that as a red flag to a bull."

The NATO-led force has 16,000 troops in Kosovo and its French commander says it is able to provide security.

Obrad Kesic, an analyst of Serbian politics, agrees that the area north of Mitrovica where 40 percent of Kosovo's 100,000 Serbs live is a potential flash point.

"If there is a perception that there is a threat to the Serbs in Mitrovica and north of the Ibar River, Serbia is going to have a very difficult decision to make in terms of what it is going to do," Kesic said.

Kesic says it is impossible to predict how events will unfold in the next few weeks. He, like Kuperman, does not rule out of the possibility of military conflict.