Kosovars Declare Their Independence

PRISTINA, Kosovo -- Kosovo's parliament declared the disputed territory a nation on Sunday, mounting a historic bid to become an "independent and democratic state" backed by the U.S. and key European allies but bitterly contested by Serbia and Russia.

Serbia immediately denounced the declaration as illegal, and Russia demanded an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council. The European Union and NATO, mindful of the Balkans' turbulent past, appealed for restraint and warned that the international community would not tolerate violence.

"Kosovo is a republic -- an independent, democratic and sovereign state," the parliamentary speaker, Jakup Krasniqi, said as the chamber burst into applause after a unanimous vote to approve the document.

Ten minority Serb lawmakers boycotted the session in protest.

Across the capital, Pristina, revelers danced in the streets, fired guns into the air, waved red and black Albanian flags and honked car horns in jubilation at the birth of the world's newest country.

"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, and it won't say Serbia any longer."

Krasniqi, Prime Minister Hashim Thaci and President Fatmir Sejdiu signed the declaration, which was scripted on parchment, before the unveiling of 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.

Sunday's declaration was carefully orchestrated with the U.S. and key European powers, and Kosovo was counting on swift international recognition that could come as early as Monday, when EU foreign ministers meet in Brussels.

By sidestepping the UN and appealing directly to the United States 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. 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 -- an apparent attempt to divide the province.

"From today onward, Kosovo is proud, independent and free," said Thaci, a former leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army, which battled Serbian troops in a 1998-99 separatist war that claimed 10,000 lives. "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 told the assembly during the ceremony, which was televised live. "Dreams are infinite, our challenges loom large, but nothing can deter us from moving forward to the greatness that history has reserved for us."

Thaci had stern words for the Serbian government, which last week declared secession illegal and invalid, saying in the Serbian language: "Kosovo will never be ruled by Belgrade again."

Thaci also signed 192 separate letters to nations around the world -- including Serbia -- asking them to recognize Kosovo as a state.

Kosovo has formally remained a part of Serbia even though it has been administered by the UN 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, mostly nominal Muslims who are secular and eschew radical Islam.