A former rebel leader was elected Kosovo's prime minister Wednesday, vowing that the province is only weeks away from independence and calling on Serbia to give up its claim to the territory.

Kosovo's parliament elected Hashim Thaci to head a coalition government that will try to steer the province through a declaration of independence, a course supported by the United States and some European governments, but fiercely opposed by Serbia and Russia.

"It's an issue of weeks and Kosovo will be an independent, sovereign and democratic country," Thaci told the Associated Press from his residence in the provincial capital, Pristina. "Independence is everything for us. We have sacrificed — we deserve it."

Still, he cautioned that no move would be made without the approval of the United States and the key European countries.

"Kosovo will do nothing without Washington and Brussels. No unilateral actions," Thaci said, referring to the seat of the European Union in Belgium.

Kosovo, though legally part of Serbia, has been under UN and NATO control since NATO's 78-day bombing campaign in 1999 ended a Serb crackdown on separatist ethnic Albanians.

International envoys last year failed to resolve the issue of whether Kosovo should become independent or remain part of Serbia. Russia has previously threatened to veto any UN Security Council measure that allows Kosovo to become a state.

Thaci, 39, is Kosovo's fifth prime minister since the southern Serbian province came under UN administration. His rise is likely to cause a stir in Serbia, which has accused him of war crimes while he led the Kosovo Liberation Army against troops loyal to the late Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic.

But Thaci sought to reassure the province's Serb minority that it would be safe in an independent Kosovo, and he called anew on Belgrade to relinquish the territory.

"Kosovo will be a country for everybody," Thaci said in Serbian. "Kosovo is a homeland to all its people."

No independence declaration is likely before Serbia's presidential elections, which begin with a first round on Jan. 20 and are likely to involve a runoff on Feb. 3.