Kosovo Declares Independence From Serbia
Monday, February 18, 2008; 12:02 AM
PRISTINA, Kosovo -- Revelers fired guns, waved red-and-black Albanian flags and set off fireworks over Kosovo 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.
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.
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.