Kosovo willpress ahead withindependence plans much earlier than anticipated, a spokesman for the breakaway Serbian province's government said Monday, asa United Nations deadline for mediators to resolve its status was set to expire without an agreement.

Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leadership had been expected to declare independence in May 2008, although it has vowed not to do so without approval from the United States and the European Union.

"It's not an issue of if, but when," spokesman Skender Hyseni told the Associated Press after a meeting of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leadership in the provincial capital of Pristina. "Kosovo will look at its own agenda, but it will certainly be much earlier than May."

Meanwhile,Kosovo's outgoing prime minister urged the European Union to swiftly sign off on the province's quest for independence, a movecertain todraw vehement opposition from Belgrade and Serbia's longtime backers in Moscow.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Agim Cekusaid the EU must "recognize the need for immediate and permanent conclusion of this process."

Ceku also sought to reassure Europe of what he called "our commitment to multi-ethnicity, our commitment to democracy, our commitment to international supervision of independence, our commitment to international partnership and our commitment to a European future."

Russia warns of 'chain reaction' in Balkans

But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov issued a stern warning onMonday, saying any Western recognition of a unilateral declaration of independence would violate international law and could set off a "chain reaction" of problems in the Balkans and beyond.

On Friday, a "troika" of envoys from the EU, U.S. and Russia reported back to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that four months of internationally mediated talks had ended in a stalemate.

EU foreign ministers were meeting Monday on the Kosovo crisis and the UN Security Council is set to take up the issue on Dec. 19.

Officials said a declaration of independence is expected sometime in January or February. That would start a 120-day internationally supervised transition, during which the U.S. and other countries would recognize the new state and the UN would hand off administration to the EU.

Although the province formally remains part of Serbia, it has been run by the UN and NATO since 1999, when NATO airstrikes ended a Serbian crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists.

Serbia has offered Kosovo broad autonomy but insists it remain part of Serbian territory and Russia has threatened to block its independence drive at the UN Security Council.

With files from the Associated Press