US and European powers recognize Kosovo’s independence from Serbia

By IWilliam J. Kole

PRISTINA, Kosovo – The U.S. and major European powers recognized Kosovo on Monday, a day after the province’s ethnic Albanian leaders declared independence from Serbia. Giddy Kosovars danced in the streets when they heard of the endorsements.

Kosovo’s leaders sent letters to 192 countries seeking formal recognition and Britain, France, Germany and U.S. were among the countries that backed the request. But other European Union nations were opposed, including Spain which has battled a violent Basque separatist movement for decades.

“The Kosovars are now independent,” President Bush said during a trip to Africa. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Bush “has responded affirmatively” to Kosovo’s request to establish diplomatic relations.

“The establishment of these relations will reaffirm the special ties of friendship that have linked together the people of the United States and Kosovo,” Rice’s statement said.

Serbia withdrew its ambassador from Washington over the U.S. decision to recognize Kosovo.

As word of the recognition spread, ethnic Albanians poured into the streets of Kosovo’s capital Pristina to cheer and dance.

The republic’s new flag – a blue banner with a yellow silhouette of Kosovo and six white stars representing each of the main ethnic groups – fluttered from homes and offices. But Serb-controlled northern Kosovo was tense with thousands demonstrating against independence and an explosion damaging a U.N. vehicle. No one was hurt.

By sidestepping the U.N. and appealing directly to the U.S. 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 it would set a dangerous precedent for separatist groups worldwide.

Russia persuaded the U.N. Security Council to meet in emergency session Sunday in an attempt to block Kosovo’s secession. The council was to meet again later Monday.

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, which killed 10,000 people.

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.

Despite calls for restraint, tensions flared in northern Kosovo, home to most of the territory’s 100,000 minority Serbs. An explosion damaged a U.N. vehicle outside the ethnically divided town of Kosovska Mitrovica, where thousands of Serbs demonstrated, chanting “this is Serbia!”

The crowds marched to a bridge spanning a river dividing the town between the ethnic Albanian and Serbian sides. They were confronted by NATO peacekeepers guarding the bridge, but there was no violence.

Another 800 Serbs staged a noisy demonstration in the Serb-dominated enclave of Gracanica outside Pristina, waving Serbian flags and singing patriotic songs.

“Our obligation is to stay in our homes and live as if nothing happened yesterday,” said protester Goran Arsic.

In a first sign that Serbia was attempting to retake authority in the north of Kosovo, some Serb policemen started leaving the multiethnic Kosovo police force on Monday and placed themselves under the authority of the Serbian government in Belgrade, a senior Kosovo Serb police official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

There were about 320 Serb policemen in the U.N.-established force that has run Kosovo since 1999. The departure of Serb policemen in the force would likely trigger a confrontation with the U.N. administration.

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.

NATO insisted its peacekeeping mission in Kosovo will not be weakened by differences among the allies over recognition.

The 27 EU nations stood divided as their foreign ministers met in Brussels, Belgium, to try to forge a common stance on recognition. At the end of the meeting, the ministers cleared the way for some member nations to endorse independence.

European powers France, Britain and Germany led most of the EU nations in recognizing Kosovo. Spain led a group of five who opposed it, fearing it could set a dangerous precedent encouraging separatist minorities elsewhere to seek statehood.

“A majority of the EU states will recognize Kosovo,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier predicted, saying 17 member states were set to do so in the coming weeks.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said recognizing Kosovo now “can help the western Balkans close two decades of violence and conflict.”

“There is a very strong head of steam building among a wide range of countries that do see this as the last piece of the Yugoslav jigsaw and don’t see stability in the western Balkans being established without the aspirations of the Kosovar people being respected,” Miliband said.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said Kosovo’s declaration was “a great success for Europe, a great success for the Kosovars and certainly not a defeat for the Serbs.”

Italy, Sweden, Belgium, Bulgaria, Finland, Ireland, Austria, Slovenia, the Czech Republic and Poland also said they had initiated national procedures to recognize Kosovo.

Spain, however, said Kosovo’s independence bid – and efforts to recognize it – were illegal under international law.

On Sunday, Kosovo’s lawmakers achieved what a bloody 1998-99 separatist war with Serbian forces could not: They pronounced the disputed province the Republic of Kosovo, and pledged to make it a “democratic, multiethnic state.”

The proclamation sent thousands of jubilant ethnic Albanians into the streets overnight, where they waved red-and-black Albanian flags, fired guns and fireworks into the air and danced in the streets.

Kosovo President Fatmir Sejdiu played down the fears of renewed unrest Monday, saying the government needed to set about the business of building a democratic country.

“It will be a big day today because we have lots of things that we need to start and finish,” Sejdiu said. “We need continuous work and commitment, and we are fully dedicated to fulfilling the promises to better our state.”

The 192 letters seeking recognition included one to Serbia. But the Belgrade government made clear it would never accept Kosovo’s statehood. Serbia said it would seek to block Kosovo from gaining diplomatic recognition and membership in the U.N. and other international organizations.

“The so-called Kosovo state will never be a member of the United Nations,” Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic said.

Serbia’s Interior Ministry filed criminal charges on Monday against the three Kosovo leaders for proclaiming independence – Sejdiu, Prime Minister Hashim Thaci and parliament Speaker Jakup Krasniqi. The charges were only symbolic because Serbia has not had jurisdiction over Kosovo since the 1999 war.

Serbia’s government has ruled out a military response as part of a secret “action plan” drafted earlier this week. But it threatened to recall its ambassadors from all countries that establish diplomatic ties with Kosovo, though it would not cut diplomatic relations.

“This decision by the United States will not turn the false state (of Kosovo) a real one,” Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica told parliament. “The government has ordered the immediate withdrawal of the ambassador from Washington.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin has argued that independence without U.N. approval would set a dangerous precedent for “frozen conflicts” across the former Soviet Union, where separatists in Chechnya and Georgia are agitating for independence.