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Archive for Monday, February 18, 2008

Kosovo declares independence from Serbia; Russia protests

February 18, 2008

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A Kosovar Albanian man holds an Albanian flag on his rooftop Sunday over the ethnically divided town of Kosovska Mitrovica, Kosovo, as he celebrates the independence of Kosovo. Kosovo's predominantly ethnic Albanian leadership proclaimed independence from Serbia on Sunday with Western backing. Serbia has had no formal control over Kosovo, whose population is 90 percent Albanian, since NATO bombing drove out Serb forces in 1999 to halt the killing and ethnic cleansing in a 2-year war against separatist rebels.

A Kosovar Albanian man holds an Albanian flag on his rooftop Sunday over the ethnically divided town of Kosovska Mitrovica, Kosovo, as he celebrates the independence of Kosovo. Kosovo's predominantly ethnic Albanian leadership proclaimed independence from Serbia on Sunday with Western backing. Serbia has had no formal control over Kosovo, whose population is 90 percent Albanian, since NATO bombing drove out Serb forces in 1999 to halt the killing and ethnic cleansing in a 2-year war against separatist rebels.

— Revelers fired guns, waved red-and-black Albanian flags and set off fireworks over Kosovo on Sunday 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.

Albanians celebrate

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.

Cheering worldwide

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.

'A friend in America'

President Bush said the U.S. "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," Djordje Jovanovic said.

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 today, when EU foreign ministers meet in Brussels, Belgium.

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