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Kosovo tells world court independence "irreversible"

THE HAGUE (Reuters) - Kosovo told the world court on Tuesday that its 2008 declaration of independence was irreversible, arguing against Serbia’s claims that the act was a “flagrant violation” of its territorial integrity.

A Kosovo Albanian man visits the graves of people killed in 1998 by Serb forces, including a three-month-old baby Diturije Deliu, in the Drenica Valley in central Kosovo, December 1, 2009. REUTERS/Hazir Reka

At the start of U.N. hearings examining the legality of the move, Serbian ambassador to France Dusan Batakovic told a 15-judge panel he hoped for a ruling that would provide scope for talks with Kosovo that would prevent a full break from Serbia and contribute to “peace and stability.”

“Kosovo is the historic cradle of Serbia and ... one of the essential pillars of its identity,” Batakovic said.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague is holding the hearings at Serbia’s request a decade after NATO bombing ended a two-year war between Serbia and ethnic Kosovo Albanians. The court is expected to give its advisory opinion within a year.

Kosovo’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Skender Hyseni, speaking after Serbia, argued Kosovo’s independence was already recognized by 63 other nations and it was already functioning as an independent republic with a constitution and elections.

“Kosovo’s independence is irreversible and that will remain the case, not only for the sake of Kosovo, but also for the sake of sustainable regional peace and security,” he told the court.

Serbian officials say they want to see Kosovo as the country’s southern province with wide autonomy, something Pristina rejected in 2006-07 U.N.-sponsored talks.

The United States and most other Western states recognized Kosovo’s independence, but Serbia rejected it, as did its ally Russia.

Malcolm Shaw, a lawyer representing Serbia, warned the court that its ruling is being watched with “great apprehension” by other states also facing separatist pressures.

“If on Earth there was to be a single territory where secession would not be permitted, it would be Kosovo,” said Marcelo Kohen, another lawyer representing Serbia.

Kosovo Deputy Prime Minister Rame Manaj told Reuters on Monday that Kosovo would never again become a part of Serbia.

“Serbia deported half the population of Kosovo, killed and massacred more than 12,000 people ... and because of all that we declared independence,” Manaj said.


Judges at the ICJ, the U.N.’s highest judicial body, will hear statements from 29 other nations over eight more days, with key testimony from Spain, the United States and Russia expected on December 8.

The panel’s decision is non-binding but will be closely watched by states with regions seeking autonomy.

Spain, which is grappling with its own separatist movements, has already said it will not recognize an independent Kosovo.

The argument over Kosovo is a legacy of the Balkan wars resulting from the violent breakup of the former Yugoslavia.

Separatist Kosovo Albanians triggered a brutal crackdown by the Yugoslav army and police in the late 1990s, which ended after a 78-day NATO bombing campaign.

The U.N. Security Council, noting a “grave humanitarian situation,” adopted Resolution 1244 in 1999 to install an U.N. administration in Kosovo and a NATO-monitored ceasefire.

Since then some two million Albanians and 120,000 Serbs have lived separately in Kosovo, deeply suspicious and occasionally hostile to each other.

Observers say a ruling at the ICJ in Kosovo’s favor would lead more countries to recognize its independence, while an adverse opinion could push it into negotiating a settlement with Serbia.

Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic noted this was the “first time in history” that Serbia has sought to resolve an issue of a province declaring autonomy peacefully in a court of law.

“Today was a good day for the Balkans,” Jeremic said.

Editing by Sonya Hepinstall