Kosovo begins independence with tension and support

Monday marked Kosovo's first full day of independence, despite rioting by Serbs and Russia's disapproval. The EU, US, Australia and other nations declared their support.


Kosovo began its first full day of self-declared independence from Serbia Monday, despite riots in the streets of Belgrade and a last-ditch Russian bid to block the move at the United Nations.

Tens of thousands of people in central Pristina erupted in cheers on Sunday as the Kosovo parliament formally voted to break from Serbia, completing the conflict-strewn breakup of the former Yugoslavia.

The celebrations there went on into the night.

But in the Serbian capital Belgrade, riot police using tear gas and batons dispersed about 800 youths who went on the rampage for several hours, smashing two McDonald's restaurants, and those of the US and Slovenian embassies.

Hospital officials said at least 50 people including 20 policemen were injured during the rioting, but none seriously.

Serbia's President Boris Tadic meanwhile declared: "Serbia has reacted and will react with all peaceful, diplomatic and legal means to annul this act committed by Kosovo's institutions."

Russia called a special meeting of the United Nations Security Council to discuss the issue late Sunday but failed to secure backing for its call to declare Kosovo's declaration "null and void".

China on Monday expressed its "deep concern" over Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia, warning the move could lead to severe instability in the Balkans.

But Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on Monday supported Kosovo's move, and said diplomatic recognition of the new state would be offered soon.

Japan too said it would probably eventually recognise Kosovo's independence.

"We'd like to assess whether the conditions are met for us to recognise it as a nation, but of course we are in the direction of recognition," said chief government spokesman Nobutaka Machimura.

In the ethnically divided northern Kosovo town of Mitrovica, meanwhile, four grenades were thrown at buildings housing the UN and the EU mission, said police, but only one exploded and there were no reported injuries.

Earlier, in the south of Serbia, members of the Kosovo Police Service stopped several hundred former Serbian army reservists dressed in military uniforms from crossing into the province ahead of the declaration.

The group broke through a Serbian police cordon before being stopped on the other side of the border by the KPS, Beta news agency and B92 radio reported.

Kosovo lawmakers voted for a declaration that recalled the province's "years of strife and violence" under Serbian sovereignty.

But it also vowed to "protect and promote the rights of all communities" in the new country -- a reference to the Serb minority in the two million population.

"We are now an independent, free, sovereign and democratic country," announced Kosovo parliament speaker Jakup Krasniqi.

The United States and European Union are quickly expected to recognise the new state.

"On Kosovo, our position is that its status must be resolved in order for the Balkans to be stable," US President George W. Bush said.

Independence brings down the curtain on the long and brutal break-up of Yugoslavia since the demise of communism in Europe in 1990s which saw the continent's worst atrocities since World War II.

About 10,000 people died in the 1998-1999 Kosovo war as Serb forces tried to put down ethnic Albanian separatists. A NATO air war against late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic halted the conflict and Kosovo has since been under UN administration.

The declaration started a 120-day transition period and the deployment of a 2,000-strong European Union police and judicial team to help the transition.

Kosovo President Fatmir Sejdiu called on "all the countries of the world" to recognise Kosovo's independence.

The European Union is split over independence. Britain, France, Germany and Italy are expected to officially give recognition on Monday.

Greece, Cyprus, Romania, Slovakia, Spain and Bulgaria have all opposed independence.

The breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia plan to ask Russia and the UN to recognise their independence following Kosovo's move, Russia's Interfax news agency quoted leaders in the two regions as saying.

Kosovo's constitution is expected to be based on the blueprint for "supervised independence" proposed by UN special envoy Martti Ahtisaari, which blocked at the UN. Kosovo's independence was declared without UN Security Council approval.

With an estimated unemployment rate of 40 percent and half its population under the age of 25, Kosovo will nevertheless remain highly dependent on massive infusions of Western economic aid.

An estimated 120,000 Serbs live in Kosovo, home to some of the most important shrines of the Serbian Orthodox faith.

More than 220,000 others have left since 1999. Belgrade is imploring Serbs in Kosovo to stay put as an act of defiance.

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