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BERLIN (Reuters) - Kosovo is on track to take part in its first ever Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 after the region in the Balkans was granted provisional recognition by the International Olympic Committee on Wednesday.
It could now achieve full membership as early as the IOC session in December, the IOC said in a statement on Wednesday.
The decision angered Serbia's Olympic Committee which has lodged an official protest with the Olympic body.
Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, almost a decade after NATO went to war to halt the massacre and expulsion of Albanians by Serbian forces waging a two-year counter-insurgency under late strongman Slobodan Milosevic.
Belgrade refuses to recognize Kosovo, saying the territory, which has a majority Albanian population, is a heartland of the Serbian nation.
"The Executive Board noted that the National Olympic Committee of Kosovo has met the requirements for recognition as outlined in the Olympic Charter," it said in a statement.
"These include the sport and technical requirements as well as the definition of "country" as defined in Rule 30.1 – “an independent State recognized by the international community.” Kosovo is recognized as a country by 108 of the 193 UN Member States."
It will vote on its full membership at its session in Monaco in December.
"The decision was taken by the Executive Board in the interests of the athletes in Kosovo and to remove any uncertainty they may have. It will allow them to take part in qualifications for the Olympic Games Rio 2016 and in future editions of the Games," it said.
The decision was welcomed by Kosovo's Olympic Committee, formed in 1992 with more than 30 affiliated national federations with 13 of which being Olympic sports federations. Six of those -- table tennis, archery, judo, sailing, weightlifting, modern pentathlon -- are full members of their respective international federations.
"Allowing Kosovo players to play in Olympic games is the greatest news for Kosovo sport," Besim Hasani, the head of Kosovo’s Olympic Committee told Reuters.
"Kosovo has good players and when we will go to play in Olympics I am sure we will return with medals. Our sport was blocked for more than 25 years."
The decision sparked an angry reaction from Serbian Olympic Committee (OKS).
"The OKS most vehemently condemns the decision by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Executive Board to grant provisional membership to the national Olympic Committee of the unilaterally declared Republic of Kosovo," the OKS said on its official website (www.oks.org.rs).
"Henceforth the Olympic Committee of Serbia has lodged a protest to the International Olympic Committee. The OKS will continue to act in line with recommendations from Serbia’s authorities.”
Earlier on Wednesday the OKS had called Kosovo's attempts to join the Olympic movement "unacceptable."
"For four years now, the Serbian Olympic Committee has successfully blocked attempts by the unilaterally declared Republic of Kosovo to gain IOC membership through various channels, while the Serbian authorities have also been timely informed of these attempts.
"We have information that the IOC is now prepared to support the initiative although we have stated several times, in cooperation with the Serbian government institutions, that such activities are unacceptable," it had said.
Olympic membership through a national Olympic Committee allows athletes to compete in the summer and winter Games while also accessing IOC funds for the development of sport in their region.
There are currently 204 NOCs over five continents that includes nations as well as some territories.
While IOC recognition usually is preceded by United Nations recognition of the state, it is not a prerequisite.
Reporting by Karolos Grohmann, Additional reporting by Fatos Bytyci in Pristina and Zoran Milosavljevic in Belgrade; Editing by Ken Ferris and Pritha Sarkar