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Kosovo declares independence from Serbia

PRISTINA, Serbia (Reuters) - Kosovo Albanians declared independence on Sunday, confidently awaiting Western recognition for their state despite the anger its secession provoked in Serbia and Russia’s warnings of fresh Balkan unrest.

Serbia vowed undying but peaceful resistance to the loss of its cherished southern province. Mass protests were being organized for the coming days.

Protesters called “hooligans” by Serb media attacked the U.S. embassy in Belgrade, where riot police drove them back. Three hand-grenades were tossed in the Serb-dominated north of Kosovo, one of them exploding in a U.N. car park.

By Balkan standards, it was a relatively peaceful start to the latest drama in the tortuous break-up of Serb-dominated Yugoslavia that began nearly two decades ago. But the diplomatic repercussions were just beginning.

Serbia’s backer Russia called for an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council, and although it had no prospect of changing Western backing for the secession, the chances of Kosovo gaining a U.N. seat any time soon were close to nil.

“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 Kosovan Prime Minister Hashim Thaci.

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1,000 YEARS

The former guerrilla commander fought the forces of late Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic in a 1998-99 war which claimed about 10,000 civilian lives, the climax of a ruinous decade of Serbian ultra-nationalism and war that ended with NATO intervention.

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.

Adoption of the independence declaration in Kosovo’s parliament went swiftly with all 109 deputies present voting in favor by a show of hands.

A new flag, with the outline of Kosovo in yellow on a blue background under six stars, was lofted into the cheering assembly.

Albanians partied in the snow-swept streets of the capital, Pristina, and neighboring Albania threw a huge street party in Tirana.

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

Slideshow ( 35 images )

Serbs vow never to surrender Kosovo, steeped in 1,000 years of history and dotted with ancient Orthodox monasteries.

In a speech to the nation minutes after Kosovo voted, nationalist Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica branded it “a false state”, the brainchild of Washington and its readiness to “violate the international order for its own military interests”.

Serbia’s pro-EU president, Boris Tadic, avoided attacking the West for backing Kosovo’s independence. Serbs may be called on to decide which policy they prefer in a snap election that could come soon.

Slideshow ( 35 images )


While Russia’s opposition will prevent if from endorsing an EU mission about to take over supervision of Kosovo from the United Nations, the Council cannot annul independence, since permanent Western members back Kosovo’s 2 million Albanians.

Serbs in the north of Kosovo will certainly reject it, however, cementing an ethnic partition that has existed since NATO and the United Nations took over Kosovo in 1999 and which may weigh on the new state for years to come.

About 120,000 Serbs still live in the province. Many more fled in 1999 when Serb forces left.

Kosovo, the world’s 193rd country, will be the sixth state carved from the former Serbian-dominated Yugoslav federation since 1991, after Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, Bosnia and Montenegro, which became the world’s newest state in 2006.

Whether Kosovo will mark the final chapter in Yugoslavia’s fragmentation remains an open question.

Serb nationalists in the autonomous republic which now forms half of post-war Bosnia say that if Kosovo is allowed to secede, they too can break links with Bosnia’s Muslim-Croat federation.

Westerns powers say they have no right and no reason to do so. But Russia argues that the West’s unilateral handling of Kosovo has changed the rules and let the genie of separatism out of the bottle.

Additional reporting by Shaban Buza, Fatos Bytyci, Branislav Krstic, Matt Robinson, Ellie Tzortzi, Benet Koleka and Ivana Sekularac; editing by Richard Meares