Kosovo declares independence from Serbia; Russia protests, warning it will stir conflict

By WILLIAM J. KOLE and NEBI QENA

Associated Press Writers

PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) -- A decade ago, Kosovo rumbled with artillery fire as ethnic Albanian separatists battled Serbian forces. On Sunday, the booms came from celebratory fireworks after parliament declared independence -- a final act of defiance that dismantled the last remnant of the former Yugoslavia.

Lawmakers achieved what the bloody 1998-99 war that claimed 10,000 lives could not: They pronounced the disputed province the Republic of Kosovo, and pledged to make it a "democratic, multiethnic state.''

As thousands of jubilant ethnic Albanians poured into the streets -- firing guns in the air and waving red-and-black Albanian flags with their distinctive doubleheaded eagle -- their leaders looked for swift recognition from the U.S. and key European powers and braced for a bitter showdown with Serbia and its ally Russia.

Revelers 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 Albanian banner.

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.

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.

Serbia called Kosovo's independence declaration illegal and its ally Russia denounced it, saying it threatened to touch off a new conflict in the Balkans. Russia called for an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council, which met later on Sunday.

The European Union and NATO, mindful of the Balkans' turbulent past, appealed for restraint and warned that the international community would not tolerate violence.

President Bush said the United States "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,'' said Djordje Jovanovic.

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.

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