PRISTINA, Serbia - Thousands of wildly cheering pro-independence demonstrators marched through Kosovo's gritty capital yesterday as a sense of euphoria swept the breakaway province preparing to gain statehood early next year.

Kosovars, assured of staunch U.S. support and a promise of recognition from all but one European Union country, reveled in hopes that a decades-old dream may be within reach despite fierce opposition by Serbia and Russia.

The celebration among Albanian Serbs - a 90 percent majority in Kosovo - came as international mediators failed to negotiate a compromise on Kosovo's future by yesterday's U.N. deadline.

European Union foreign ministers meeting yesterday in Brussels, Belgium, said they had "virtual unanimity" on recognizing Kosovo's eventual independence, with Cyprus the sole holdout.

And Kosovo's prime minister demanded an "immediate and permanent" conclusion to the ethnic Albanian majority's drive for statehood - a quest that led to the 1998-99 war with Serbia and spawned nearly a decade of political and economic limbo under U.N. and NATO administration.

Yet the celebratory mood was tinged with uncertainty. Some worried that establishing a new nation might trigger ancient ethnic hatreds and thrust the Balkans into a new cycle of bloodshed.

NATO, which maintains 16,000 peacekeepers in Kosovo, has boosted street patrols in a show of force aimed at discouraging extremists on both sides of the ethnic divide.

Serbia, which has offered Kosovo broad autonomy but insists the province remain part of its territory, has threatened economic blockades, and some officials have even hinted that Belgrade might resort to force to retain what many Serbs see as the cradle of their civilization.

Russia, Serbia's No. 1 ally, has threatened to veto any move by the U.N. Security Council to sign off on statehood. Moscow says independence for Kosovo would encourage separatists in Chechnya, Georgia and elsewhere.

But Washington signaled anew that it was ready to recognize an independent Kosovo, raising the likelihood of a showdown when the Security Council takes up the issue Dec. 19.

Kosovo officials suggested independence could come sometime in January or February. That would start a 120-day internationally supervised transition, during which the United States and other countries would recognize the state and the United Nations would hand off administration to the EU.