U.S., European Leaders Recognize Independent Kosovo

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Kosovo had formally remained a part of Serbia even though it has been administered by the U.N. and NATO since 1999, when NATO air strikes ended former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic's crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists, which killed 10,000 people.

Ninety percent of Kosovo's two 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.

European Union nations stood deeply divided over whether to recognize Kosovo as their foreign ministers met in Brussels, Belgium, to try to forge a common stance. At the end of the meeting, the ministers adopted a statement clearing the way for some member nations to endorse independence.

Kosovo's declaration was "a great success for Europe, a great success for the Kosovars and certainly not a defeat for the Serbs," French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said in Brussels.

Spain, however, said the independence bid was illegal under international law.

New President Speaks

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 warned that it would downgrade relations with any foreign government that recognizes Kosovo's independence.

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.

Copyright 2008 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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