Sunday, 17 February 2008

Kosovo declares independence

PRISTINA, Serbia (Reuters) - Kosovo declared independence from Serbia on Sunday, ending a long chapter in the bloody break-up of Yugoslavia.

Serbia responded immediately by calling its mainly Albanian breakaway province a false state and condemning the United States for supporting it.

The proclamation was made by leaders of Kosovo’s 90 percent ethnic Albanian majority, including former guerrillas who fought for independence in a 1998-99 war which claimed about 10,000 civilian lives.

“We, the leaders of our people, democratically elected, through this declaration proclaim Kosovo an independent and sovereign state,” said the text read out in parliament by Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci. “This declaration reflects the will of the people.” All 109 deputies present at the session in the capital Pristina voted in favour with a show of hands. Eleven deputies from ethnic minorities, including Serbs, were absent.

Kosovo is “an independent, sovereign and democratic state”, parliament speaker Jakup Krasniqi announced after the vote. Jubilant Kosovans in the snow-covered city had begun celebrating the night before in advance. But in Belgrade, Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica branded the southern region “a false state” in a televised address to his nation just minutes after the vote in Pristina.

He said Kosovo was propped up unlawfully by the United States which was “ready to violate the international order for its own military interests”. Serbs vow never to give up the territory, in which their history goes back 1,000 years, but which has been a ward of the United Nations for nearly nine years. They can do little to stop it, but their one big-power ally Russia stood by them. Russia said it was calling for U.N. Security Council consultations over the independence declaration.

The West supports the demand of Kosovo’s 2 million ethnic Albanians for their own state, nine years after NATO went to war to save them from Serbian forces. 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.
Serbs in the north of Kosovo will 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.

The United States and most EU members are expected to quickly recognise Kosovo, despite failing to win United Nations Security Council approval — blocked by Russia last year. 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 European Union and providing guarantees for the Serb minority. The EU, which on Saturday endorsed a police mission to Kosovo, will meet on Monday to discuss the secession. The United States and most EU members are expected to quickly recognise Kosovo, despite failing to win a new Security Council resolution sanctioning the move.

Snow blanketed Pristina after a night of early celebration with thousands of Albanians pouring into the streets ahead of schedule. Banners proclaimed “Happy Independence”. “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.

“This is the happiest day,” said Tahir Bajrami, an elderly Kosovo Albanian who flew from New York to join the celebrations. “We were prisoners, but this marks a new beginning.”

(Writing by Douglas Hamilton; editing by Richard Meares)

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