By Matt Robinson
Tuesday, February 27, 2007; 12:59 PM
BELGRADE (Reuters) - Some 15,000 Serbs protested outside the U.S. embassy in Belgrade on Tuesday to denounce a Western-backed plan to give independence to the Albanian majority of Serbia's breakaway Kosovo province.
Some carried banners urging "Russia, Use Your Veto" to block the proposal at the United Nations Security Council. Cardboard cut-outs of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Hu Jintao bobbed above the crowd.
Serb civil servants in Kosovo, who answer to Belgrade, were given the day off and schools were closed so that all who wanted to could travel to the capital for the protest. Dozens of buses made the eight-hour round trip from Kosovo.
"Kosovo is the foundation and soul of Serbia," Kosovo Serb political leader Milan Ivanovic said from a stage opposite the embassy. "We appeal to the world not to carve up Serbia."
Serbs and Albanians are holding final talks in Vienna on the plan by former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari. He wants to send the blueprint to the U.N. Security Council in late March.
But veto holder Russia repeated its skepticism on Tuesday.
"Frankly, we are worried at the absence of any desire to meet the legitimate concerns of Belgrade," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said of the plan at a news conference in Moscow.
"The contents of the plan lead one to think that the authors ... took as a starting point the inevitability of Kosovo's independence regardless of Belgrade's views."
The Kosovo demonstration, backed by the ultranationalist Radicals and the party of Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, took place a day after the International Court of Justice ruled in a landmark case that Serbia was not guilty of genocide in the 1992-95 Bosnia war.
The verdict in The Hague threw a spotlight on the deep divisions in Serbia over its role in the bloody break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, in which Serb forces under the late President Slobodan Milosevic committed most of the atrocities.
Many Serbs deny this. The sense of vindication claimed by nationalist parties who say Serb forces behaved no worse than their wartime adversaries is likely to reinforce their determination to oppose a U.N. plan to give Kosovo independence.
The United Nations and NATO have run Serbia's cherished province since 1999, when Western allies bombed Serbia to force it to withdraw its troops and police who killed some 10,000 civilians in their crackdown on an Albanian guerrilla uprising.
The province's 90 percent Albanian majority say it will never accept Serb rule again, and the West says there is no viable alternative to granting them self-determination.
But Belgrade and the 100,000 Serbs still living in Kosovo oppose the plan and there is no guarantee the province will not be plunged once more into violence before its status is settled. The plan should go to the U.N. Security Council in March.