Revellers danced in the streets of Pristina waving Albanian flags in jubilation [AFP

A special session of Kosovo's parliament has voted to declare independence from Serbia, with thousands of ethnic Albanians jamming the streets of Pristina, the main city, for the historic moment.

 

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Kosovo and independence

 

Background The difficult road ahead

After deputies voted on Sunday for a formal proclamation, Hashim Thaci, the prime minister, said "from today onwards, Kosovo is proud, independent and free".

He said: "We, the leaders of our people, democratically elected, through this declaration proclaim Kosovo an independent and sovereign state.

"Our hopes have never been higher. Dreams are infinite, our challenges loom large, but nothing can deter us from moving forward to the greatness that history has reserved for us."

Thaci said Kosovo will be "a democratic, secular and multi-ethnic state", and "will never be ruled by Belgrade again". He, however, vowed to maintain friendly relations with Serbia.

All 109 deputies present at the session voted in favour of independence with a show of hands.

Eleven deputies from ethnic minorities, including Serbs, were absent.

UN deadlock

 

Russia, a key ally of Serbia, denounced Sunday's declaration and called a closed-door emergency session of the UN Security Council, saying it was deeply concerned about the safety of Serbs living in the territory.

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The discussion among members of the 15-nation council continued to expose deep divisions among them on the future of Kosovo, home to some of the most important shrines of the Serbian Orthodox faith. 

 

Russia backs its close ally Serbia, while the US, Britain, France and other European Union members are supporting the majority Kosovo Albanians.

 

Serbia and Russia argue that Kosovo's declaration of independence violates a 1999 council resolution providing for Kosovo to be administered by the UN and Nato troops and that Serbia's territorial integrity be maintained.

 

Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, said that resolution remains in force and the UN "will continue to implement its mandate in the light of the evolving circumstances".

 

Vitaly Churkin, Russia's UN ambassador who spoke to reporters before and after the session, said Moscow was "highly concerned" about Kosovo's declaration of "unilateral independence".

 

Since the UN resolution remains in force, Churkin said, the UN still runs Kosovo and "it is not obvious at all what could possibly be the legal basis for even considering" Kosovo's declaration of independence".

 

"Our concern is for the safety of the Serbs and other ethnic minorities in Kosovo," Churkin told reporters. "We'll strongly warn against any attempts at repressive measures, should Serbs in Kosovo decide not to comply with this unilateral proclamation of independence".

 

Ban said Kosovo's prime minister had assured him he was committed to "equal opportunities and no discrimination" against anyone in Kosovo.

 

He urged all sides to "refrain from any actions or statements that could endanger peace, incite violence or jeopardise security in Kosovo and the region".

Scenes of celebration

Across Pristina, revellers danced in the streets, fired guns into the air, waved red-and-black Albanian flags and honked car horns in jubilation at the birth of the world's newest country.

The declaration was signed by the prime
minister, president and speaker [AFP]

Ninety per cent of Kosovo's 2 million people are ethnic Albanian - mostly nominal Muslims who are secular - and they see no reason to stay joined to the rest of Christian Orthodox Serbia.

"Kosovo is a republic - an independent, democratic and sovereign state," Jakup Krasniqi, the parliament speaker, said as the chamber rang with applause.

Krasniqi, Thaci and Fatmir Sejdiu, the president, signed the declaration, which was scripted on parchment. Later, the flag of independent Kosovo was unveiled in parliament.

It depicts a yellow outline of the nation on a dark blue field, accompanied by six stars.

Thaci signed 192 separate letters to countries around the world - including Serbia - asking them to recognise Kosovo as a state.

He also promised to abide by a plan set out by Martti Ahtisaari, a former UN envoy, which proposed a transition period focusing on Serb rights, and eventually leading to independence.

Pristina expects countries, including the US and several EU members, to announce their recognition on Monday.

EU police mission

Kosovo hopes for international recognition that could come on Monday when European Union ministers meet in Brussels, Belgium.

The EU on Saturday launched a 2,000-member police and judicial mission to help facilitate Kosovo's transition to independence.

Lieutenant-General Xavier de Marnhac, the commander of Nato peacekeepers in Kosovo, said his troops "will react and oppose any provocation that may happen during these days, whether from the Albanian or the Serb side".

But Al Jazeera's Barnaby Phillips, reporting from Kosovo's Serb stronghold of Mitrovica, said grenades were thrown at EU and UN buildings.

He said: "Two explosive devices were used - one aimed at where an EU mission planned to base itself in the area, and the other at a UN building."

"It seems that the international community has been singled out by angry Serbs in Mitrovica." 

The same antipathy was on display in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, where people stoned the US embassy in protest against its pro-independence stand.

"Kosovo is the heart of Serbia," shouted up to 2,000 demonstrators. Some broke windows at the embassy.

Bush criticised

Vojislav Kostunica, the Serbian prime minister, singled out George Bush in a speech on Sunday.

He said: "The president of the United States, who is responsible for this violence, as well as his European followers, will be inscribed in the history of Serbia with black letters, but also in the history of international law on which the world's order is based.

Serbians vented their anger at the US by
stoning its backing in Belgrade [Reuters]

"Today, on February 17, the fake state of Kosovo was illegally proclaimed on [Serbia's] territory under the control of Nato," Kostunica said.

"This was an act of legal violence."

The previous day, Boris Tadic, Serbia's new pro-Western president, issued a similarly defiant statement.

"Serbia has reacted and will react with all peaceful, diplomatic and legal means to annul this act committed by Kosovo's institutions," he said.

"Serbia will not resort to violence and it is the only approach which can enable us to continue our legitimate fight to preserve the integrity of our country."

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies