UNITED NATIONS The U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday approved Serbia's request to ask a U.N. court if Kosovo's secession was legal, a move many Western states fear will slow down Kosovo's integration into the world community.
Forty-eight countries including the United States and most European Union members have recognized Kosovo since its ethnic Albanian majority unilaterally declared independence from Serbia on February 17, but Serbia and its ally Russia oppose it.
The International Court of Justice in The Hague is expected to take one to two years to issue its opinion.
Belgrade says seeking neutral judicial advice will help ease tension in the region, but Kosovo's supporters say it will slow down Pristina's international integration and encourage countries to delay decisions on whether to recognize Kosovo.
There were 77 votes in favor, six votes against and 74 abstentions. After the vote, Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic thanked the assembly for its show of support.
Although the Serbian resolution was approved by the assembly, most of the 27 EU states abstained from the vote. The United States, like Albania, opposed it.
U.S. envoy Rosemary DiCarlo told the assembly that the Serbian request was "unnecessary and unhelpful," adding that "Kosovo's independence is irreversible."
Britain's U.N. Ambassador John Sawyers reiterated London's full support for the ICJ but added that this did not mean it backed Belgrade's resolution, which is why Britain abstained.
He said Serbia's request was "primarily for political rather than legal reasons" and "designed to slow down Kosovo's emergence as a widely recognized independent nation."
Sawyers told Reuters later the actual vote was not a good outcome for Serbia.
"More countries felt unable to support the resolution than voted in favor of it, and that included many of the countries that Serbia is going to have to work with very closely if it's to achieve its goal of joining the European Union," he said.
But the division inside the EU was clear. Cyprus, Slovakia, Romania, Greece and Spain broke ranks with the majority of EU members which abstained in order to vote with Serbia.
Jeremic rejected the suggestion that Belgrade's move was politically motivated and said seeking ICJ advice would "reduce tensions in the region."
"(It) would prevent the Kosovo crisis from serving as a deeply problematic precedent in any part of the globe where secessionist ambitions are harbored," he said.
Kosovo's President Fatmir Sejdiu read out a declaration to reporters in Pristina that expressed his government's regret.
"It will not help the attempts to promote long term stability in Kosovo and in the region," he said. "The issue of the independence of Kosovo is a done deal and is irreversible."
Western diplomats in New York who support Kosovo's independence have said they are confident the ICJ will rule that its secession from Serbia was legal. But some worry that separatist enclaves around the world might leap on any such decision as supporting their own desires for secession.
(Additional reporting by Ivana Sekularac in Belgrade and Ingrid Melander in Brussels; Editing by David Storey)