Kosovo declares independence from Serbia
By WILLIAM J. KOLE and NEBI QENA, Associated Press Writers
February 18, 2008
Revelers fired guns, waved red-and-black Albanian flags and set off fireworks over Kosovo Sunday [February 17, 2008] after parliament proclaimed independence in defiance of Serbia and Russia, which condemned the declaration of the world's newest nation.
A decade after a bloody separatist war with Serbian forces that claimed 10,000 lives, lawmakers pronounced the territory the Republic of Kosovo and pledged to make it a "democratic, multiethnic state." Its leaders looked for swift recognition from the U.S. and key European powers — but also braced for a bitter showdown.
Serbia called the declaration illegal and its ally Russia denounced it, saying it threatened to touch off a new conflict in the Balkans. Russia and Serbia called for an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council, which met later Sunday.
In the capital, Pristina, the mood was jubilant. Thousands of ethnic Albanians braved subfreezing temperatures to ride on the roofs of their cars, singing patriotic songs and chanting: "KLA! KLA!" the acronym for the now-disbanded rebel Kosovo Liberation Army. They waved American flags alongside the red Albanian banner imprinted with a black, double-headed eagle.
Many dressed in traditional costumes and played trumpets and drums, and an ethnic Albanian couple named their newborn daughter Pavarsie — Albanian for "independence."
"This is the happiest day in my life," said Mehdi Shehu, 68. "Now we're free and we can celebrate without fear."
By contrast, police in the Serbian capital Belgrade fired tear gas and rubber bullets in skirmishes with protesters who opposed the declaration. Groups of masked thugs ran through downtown Belgrade smashing windows and ransacking tobacco stands. At least 30 people were injured, about half of them police officers, hospital officials said.
Hundreds of protesters rallied outside the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade. Others broke windows at McDonald's restaurants and at the embassy of Slovenia — which holds the European Union's rotating presidency. Later in the evening, police kept a group of protesters from approaching the Albanian Embassy.
In Switzerland, which hosts many immigrants from Kosovo, police estimated about 10,000 people gathered in Lausanne. Crowds also cheered in Bern, where Bundesplatz square quickly filled with a happy crowd, champagne corks popping. In the U.S., crowds in New York's Times Square also celebrated the declaration.
Kosovo had formally remained a part of Serbia even though it has been administered by the U.N. and NATO since 1999, when NATO airstrikes ended former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic's crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists.
Ninety percent of Kosovo's 2 million people are ethnic Albanian — most of them secular Muslims — and they see no reason to stay joined to the rest of Christian Orthodox Serbia.
The European Union and NATO, mindful of the Balkans' turbulent past, appealed for restraint and warned that the international community would not tolerate violence.
President Bush said the United States "will continue to work with our allies to the very best we can to make sure there's no violence."
"We are heartened by the fact that the Kosovo government has clearly proclaimed its willingness and its desire to support Serbian rights in Kosovo," Bush said while on a visit to Africa. "We also believe it's in Serbia's interest to be aligned with Europe and the Serbian people can know that they have a friend in America."
Underscoring fears of renewed unrest, an explosion lightly damaged a U.N. building housing a courthouse and a jail in Kosovo's tense north, home to most of its roughly 100,000 minority Serbs. No one was injured. An unexploded grenade was found near a motel that houses EU officials.
In the ethnically divided northern city of Kosovska Mitrovica, Serbs vowed never to let Kosovo go.
"The Albanians can celebrate all they want, but this stillborn baby of theirs will never be an independent country as long as we Serbs are here and alive," said Djordje Jovanovic.
Kosovo is still protected by 16,000 NATO-led peacekeepers, and the alliance boosted its patrols over the weekend in hopes of discouraging violence. International police, meanwhile, deployed to back up local forces in the tense north.
Sunday's declaration was carefully orchestrated with the U.S. and key European powers, and Kosovo was counting on international recognition that could come as early as Monday, when EU foreign ministers meet in Brussels, Belgium.
But by sidestepping the U.N. and appealing directly to the U.S. and other nations for recognition, Kosovo's independence set up a showdown with Serbia — outraged at the imminent loss of its territory — and Russia, which warned that it would set a dangerous precedent for separatist groups worldwide.
China, a veto-wielding U.N. Security Council member that had close ties with Milosevic's government, expressed its "deep concern" over Kosovo's declaration and called on the province to reach a "proper solution through negotiations" with Serbia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has argued that independence without U.N. approval would set a dangerous precedent for "frozen conflicts" across the former Soviet Union, where separatists in Chechnya and Georgia are agitating for independence.
Serbia's government ruled out a military response as part of a secret "action plan" drafted earlier this week, but warned that it would downgrade relations with any foreign government that recognizes Kosovo's independence.
Meanwhile, Serbia's government minister for Kosovo, Slobodan Samardzic, said Serbia would increase its presence in the roughly 15 percent of Kosovo that is Serb-controlled in an apparent attempt to partition the province.
Kosovo President Fatmir Sejdiu sought to allay Serbs' concerns, telling them: "I understand today is a fearful day for you all, but your rights and your property will be protected today as it will be always."
At a special session of parliament boycotted by 10 minority Serb lawmakers and televised live nationwide, sustained applause erupted after the rest of the chamber unanimously adopted the declaration of independence, which was scripted on parchment.
They also unveiled a new national crest and a flag: a bright blue banner featuring a golden map of Kosovo and six stars, one for each of its main ethnic groups. Few of the new flags were seen Sunday on Kosovo's streets, where the old Albanian banner still dominated.
"We, the democratically elected leaders of our people, hereby declare Kosovo to be an independent and sovereign state," the proclamation read.
"From today onwards, Kosovo is proud, independent and free," said Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, a former KLA leader. "We never lost faith in the dream that one day we would stand among the free nations of the world, and today we do."
"Our hopes have never been higher," he said. "Dreams are infinite, our challenges loom large, but nothing can deter us from moving forward to the greatness that history has reserved for us."
Like Sejdiu, Thaci reached out to ordinary Serbs, but he had stern words for the Serbian government.
"Kosovo will never be ruled by Belgrade again," he warned.
Thaci also signed 192 separate letters to nations around the world — including Serbia — asking them to recognize Kosovo as a state.
Indonesia, which has the world's largest Muslim population, immediately rejected the plea, reflecting its concerns that Kosovo's pronouncement could energize separatist movements in the Papua region the Maluku islands.
Kosovo's leaders signed their names on a giant iron sculpture spelling out "NEWBORN" before heading to a sports hall for a performance of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" by the Kosovo Philharmonic Orchestra.
"I feel stronger," said Ymer Govori, 36, carrying his daughter on his shoulders to celebrations downtown. "I have my own state and my own post code," he said, "and it won't say Serbia any longer."
Associated Press writers Dusan Stojanovic in Kosovska Mitrovica, Slobodan Lekic and Jovana Gec in Belgrade contributed to this report.