LONDON (AP) The IOC accepted Kosovo into the Olympic fold on Wednesday, clearing the way for the former Serbian province to send an independent team to the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.
The International Olympic Committee executive board granted provisional recognition to Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008. It will propose full recognition for Kosovo at the IOC general assembly in Monaco in December - which should be a formality.
''The decision was taken by the executive board in the interests of the athletes in Kosovo and to remove any uncertainty they may have,'' the IOC said. ''It will allow them to take part in qualifications for the Olympic Games Rio 2016 and in future editions of the games.''
The move was opposed by Serbian Olympic officials, who had worked to block international acceptance of Kosovo.
Kosovo has a majority of ethnic Albanian inhabitants. Serbia, which considers Kosovo the cradle of its statehood and religion, has refused to accept the breakaway province's independence.
The IOC said Kosovo met the sports and technical requirements for acceptance, including the definition of a ''country'' in the Olympic Charter as ''an independent state recognized by the international community.''
The IOC said Kosovo is recognized by 108 of 193 U.N. member states.
Normally, the IOC waits for the United Nations to recognize a nation or state before granting Olympic recognition.
Kosovo has not been accepted as a U.N. member. While more than 100 nations have recognized Kosovo, Russia and China have not. Most European Union members have also recognized Kosovo, with the exception of Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Romania and Slovakia.
''Such a move would be a precedent that has never happened in history, considering that no national Olympic committee ever became a member (of the IOC) before the country became a member of the United Nations,'' the Serbian committee said in a statement Wednesday before the IOC decision was announced.
In order to be eligible for IOC recognition, a national Olympic committee must be affiliated with at least five international sports federations.
The IOC said Kosovo's national Olympic body, set up in 1992, has more than 30 affiliated national sports federations, including 13 from Olympic sports. Six of those are full members of international federations, the IOC said.
The decision came on the first day of a three-day executive board meeting in Montreux, Switzerland. Kosovo's status had been scheduled to be discussed on Friday, but the IOC moved quickly after news of the likely decision leaked out earlier Wednesday.
Officials in Kosovo welcomed the prospect of forming their own Olympic team.
''Acceptance by the IOC will be a fulfillment of a dream for many thousands of Kosovo athletes, who deserve to be treated equally in international sports,'' Culture, Sports and Youth Minister Memli Krasniqi told The Associated Press on Wednesday. ''We look forward to cheer for them in Rio and beyond.''
The head of Kosovo's Olympic committee, Besim Hasani, told the AP he expects up to 10 athletes to compete in Rio, including in the sports of judo, boxing and wrestling.
Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci welcomed the IOC's move.
''This decision opens the doors for Kosovo to be part of the Olympics and to be accepted in sports in Olympic Federations,'' he wrote on his Facebook page. ''This is the dream of athletes ... in Kosovo and today we thank all of them who kept alive the Olympic spirit during the hardest times.''
Thaci added: ''The next step, Olympics in Rio.''
Kosovo's best known athlete, Majlinda Kelmendi, is a reigning judo world champion. She had hoped to represent Kosovo at the 2012 London Olympics but competed for Albania instead. She has Kosovo and Albanian citizenship.
Tensions over Kosovo were underlined by an incident in Belgrade last week, when a European Championship football qualifier between Serbia and Albania was abandoned amid fighting after a drone carrying an Albanian nationalist banner flew into the stadium.
Meantime, the IOC is considering suspending Gambia's Olympic committee after its headquarters were shut down by the government in April. The IOC met with Gambian officials in Lausanne in September and said the offices and property should be returned and any travel ban issued against committee officers be lifted.
The IOC said ''appropriate decisions'' would be taken at the October board meeting depending on any progress made.
In recent years, the IOC suspended the national Olympic bodies of India, Kuwait, Ghana and Panama for political interference. All were eventually reinstated.
Gresa Kraja in Pristina, Kosovo; and Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Serbia, contributed to this report.
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