The rapture that erupted in the streets of Pristina tonight -- a honking, chanting, wildly waving parade of cars, people and armored vehicles they climbed upon -- was only partly planned.

It came on July 2, which has been observed as Republic Day ever since the leaders of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority declared their hopes for independence while the Yugoslav federation was falling apart in 1990. In the darker and darker years since, the occasion has always been observed, but never like this delicious moment three weeks after authorities in the Serbian province were driven from power in the culmination of the 78-day NATO campaign.

The celebrations started at the dinner hour, with a few cars forming a honking promenade. "And then all of the people saw you could go out," said Zana Slamniku, 25, standing on the curb watching what had come of the awakening that rolled across the city, with people climbing out to their balconies to hear the distant noise, then into their cars to join it. "You are in freedom now. You understood that."

By nightfall, downtown was a slow-moving traffic jam. Young men on trucks waved flags: the red and black flag of Albania, the Stars and Stripes. A Canadian armored personnel carrier, sporting a Maple Leaf, became a platform for children waving victory signs.

"No, it's ours," a British paratrooper told five young men pleading for the Union Jack fluttering from the whip antenna rising from his radio pack.

"Tonight, you and us, we are the same," one of them told him.

A romantic notion for a transporting night.

A violent incident marred the festivities. British peacekeeping troops opened fire at one point, killing a civilian and injuring two, according to a spokesman for the NATO force. The Associated Press quoted witnesses as saying a young man on top of a car fired a rifle into the air, and the British returned fire.

Overall, though, the atmosphere was merry. Here was a tractor coming down the street, dragging the bronze statue of Vuk Karadic, creator of the Serbian alphabet. Here was another tractor, a red one like the thousands that had pulled wagons of stunned refugees out of Kosovo and into Albania and Macedonia, but this one's trailer was full of boys beaming and cheering and holding two fingers in the air.

"K-L-A! K-L-A!" they chanted, and the crowd on the curb answered. "USA! USA!" "NATO! NATO!" "Independence! Independence!"

"We waited 10 years for this day, the first day we are all free to celebrate," said Zana Slamniku. "We have our rights that the Serbian government took from us. Today we will be like all people all over the world. "We will have our . . . our schools, our institutions. . . . We live for this day."

Despite the rhetoric about independence, Kosovo remains part of Serbian-dominated Yugoslavia. NATO pledged to give the province autonomy, while technically preserving Belgrade's sovereignty.

As midnight approached, the honking receded and the sound of gunfire rang across the city: AK-47s fired into the air, often answered by louder bangs.

Lance Cpl. Ralph Greenaway, a member of the British paratroops who have been the most aggressive peacekeepers, gave it a shrug. The peace did not seem in danger.