A special session of Kosovo’s parliament has voted to declare independence from Serbia, with thousands of ethnic Albanians jamming the streets of Pristina, the main city, for the historic moment.
After deputies voted on Sunday for a formal proclamation, Hashim Thaci, the prime minister, said “from today onwards, Kosovo is proud, independent and free”.
He said: “We, the leaders of our people, democratically elected, through this declaration proclaim Kosovo an independent and sovereign state.
“Our hopes have never been higher. 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 said Kosovo will be “a democratic, secular and multi-ethnic state”, and “will never be ruled by Belgrade again”. He, however, vowed to maintain friendly relations with Serbia.
All 109 deputies present at the session voted in favour of independence with a show of hands.
Eleven deputies from ethnic minorities, including Serbs, were absent.
Scenes of celebration
Across Pristina, revellers 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.
Ninety per cent of Kosovo’s two million people are ethnic Albanian – mostly nominal Muslims who are secular – and they see no reason to stay joined to the rest of Christian Orthodox Serbia.
“Kosovo is a republic – an independent, democratic and sovereign state,” Jakup Krasniqi, the parliament speaker, said as the chamber rang with applause.
Krasniqi, Thaci and Fatmir Sejdiu, the president, signed the declaration, which was scripted on parchment. Later, the flag of independent Kosovo was unveiled in parliament.
It depicts a yellow outline of the nation on a dark blue field, accompanied by six stars.
Thaci has signed 192 separate letters to countries around the world – including Serbia – asking them to recognise Kosovo as a state.
He also promised to abide by a plan set out by Martti Ahtisaari, a former UN envoy that came up with a plan which proposed a transition period focusing on Serb rights, and eventually leading to independence.
Pristina expects countries, including the US and several EU members, to announce their recognition on Monday.
Russia, a key ally of Serbia, denounced Sunday’s declaration and called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council.
In a statement, the foreign ministry said Russia supports Serbia’s “just demands to restore the country’s territorial integrity”, and wants the Security Council to renew efforts to reach a settlement on the issue of Kosovo’s status.
Al Jazeera’s Jonah Hull, reporting from Moscow, said that the Russian response comes as no surprise.
He said: “Russia has warned that Kosovo’s independence will raise tensions in the region, possibly leading to another Balkan conflict.”
“The government wants the decision annulled. It wants the Kosovo process brought back within the mechanism of UN Security Council Resolution 1244 – where Moscow believes it belongs. Russia wants to continue to search for some sort of agreement through negotiations that is acceptable to Serbia.”
Kosovo had been run by a UN mission since 1999, when a Nato bombing campaign drove out forces loyal to Slobodan Milosevic, the late Serbian president, after an armed conflict with ethnic Albanian fighters.
On Friday, Kosovo’s parliament convened to approve a procedure to adopt new laws that would come into effect upon independence, including measures to guarantee the safety of Serbs.
The EU on Saturday launched a 2,000-member police and judicial mission to help facilitate Kosovo’s transition to independence.
Lieutenant-General Xavier de Marnhac, the commander of Nato peacekeepers in Kosovo, said his troops “will react and oppose any provocation that may happen during these days, whether from the Albanian or the Serb side”.
Al Jazeera’s Barnaby Phillips, reporting Mitrovica, said grenades were thrown at EU and UN buildings.
He said: “Two explosive devices were used – one aimed at where an EU mission planned to base itself in the area, and the other at a UN building.”
“It seems that the international community has been singled out by angry Serbs in Mitrovica.”
Meanwhile in Belgrade, Serbs stoned a US embassy to protest Kosovo’s declaration of independence, a move which Washington has backed.
“Kosovo is the heart of Serbia,” shouted up to 2,000 demonstrators. Some broke windows at the embassy.
Vojislav Kostunica, the Serbian prime minister, criticised on Sunday the West for backing the independence declaration.
He said: “The president of the United States, who is responsible for this violence, as well as his European followers, will be inscribed in the history of Serbia with blackletters, but also in the history of international law on which the world’s order is based.
“Today, on February 17, the fake state of Kosovo was illegally proclaimed on [Serbia’s] territory under the control of Nato. This was an act of legal violence.”
The previous day, Boris Tadic, Serbia’s new president, issued a similarly defiant statement.
“Serbia has reacted and will react with all peaceful, diplomatic and legal means to annul this act committed by Kosovo’s institutions,” he said.
“Serbia will not resort to violence and it is the only approach which can enable us to continue our legitmate fight to preserve the integrity of our country.”
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies