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Kosovo declares independence from Serbia

Kosovo Albanians declared independence on Sunday, drawing instant condemnation from Serbia and triggering angry scenes outside the U.S. embassy in Belgrade.
Kosovo's Albanians celebrate in the centre of Pristina February 17, 2008. Kosovo Albanians declared independence on Sunday, drawing instant condemnation from Serbia and triggering angry scenes outside the U.S. embassy in Belgrade. (REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov)

Serbia's backer Russia called for an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council, but with no prospect of changing Western backing for the secession.

Ethnic Albanians partied in the streets of the Kosovo capital Pristina, and in Tirana in neighbouring Albania, but in Belgrade up to 2,000 angry Serbs converged on the U.S. embassy, hurling stones, smashing windows and lighting firecrackers.

Riot police tried to push them back and appeared to be getting the upper hand and dispersing the crowd.

In the Kosovo Serb stronghold of Mitrovica, three hand grenades were thrown at buildings of the United Nations and European Union. One exploded, causing minor damage.

The reaction came within hours of the Kosovo parliament proclaiming the territory independent and sovereign, sparking jubilant scenes on the snow-covered streets of Pristina.

"We, the democratically elected leaders of our people, hereby declare Kosovo to be an independent and sovereign state. This declaration reflects the will of our people," said the declaration.

The text was read to the assembly by Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, a former guerrilla commander who fought the forces of late Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic in a 1998-99 war which claimed about 10,000 civilian lives.

Milosevic revoked Kosovo's autonomy in 1989, at the outset of his ruinous decade of Serbian ultra-nationalism and war.

Serb police crushed the Kosovo Albanians' first declaration of independence in 1990. But on Sunday, there was nothing Serbia could do to prevent the move, which has the backing of major European Union powers and the United States.


All 109 deputies present at the session in the capital Pristina voted in favour with a show of hands. A new flag, with the outline of Kosovo in yellow on a blue background under six stars, was carried into parliament.

"We feel the end of Serbia in Kosovo," said one man. "I can't believe I'm alive to see this day," said another.

Serbs vow never to give up Kosovo, steeped in 1,000 years of their history and dotted with ancient monasteries.

Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica branded the southern region "a false state".

In a televised address to his nation just minutes after the vote, he said Kosovo was propped up unlawfully by Washington, which was "ready to violate the international order for its own military interests".

Kostunica said mass protests would be called soon.

Serbian President Boris Tadic was leaving on Sunday for New York for the closed-door consultations at the U.N. Security Council, his office said.

The Council will not annul the declaration, since the West backs Kosovo's 2 million Albanians, the 90-percent majority.

Serbs in the north of Kosovo will actively reject independence, cementing an ethnic partition that will weigh on the new state for years to come. Fewer than half of Kosovo's 120,000 remaining Serbs live in the north, while the rest are in scattered enclaves protected by NATO peacekeepers.

"We'll see what happens during the night," said one Serb man in Mitrovica. "There will be a lot of armed people here."


Up to 200,000 Serbs and other minorities fled Kosovo when Serb forces retreated in 1999, never to return.

Kosovo will be the sixth state carved from the former Serbian-dominated Yugoslav federation since 1991, after Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, Bosnia and Montenegro.

It will be the world's 193rd independent country but Serbia says it will never win a seat at the United Nations.

The United States and most EU members were expected to quickly recognise Kosovo. The EU will also send a supervisory mission to take over from the current U.N. authorities.

Thaci sought to reassure Serbs, saying "Kosovo is the homeland of all its citizens". He said Kosovo was committed to a Western-backed plan for independence, supervised by the EU and providing guarantees for the Serb minority.

"Today, a new life begins. The past should not be forgotten, but it belongs to the past, and should be forgiven," the Kosovo daily Koha Ditore wrote.

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