"From today onwards, Kosovo is proud, independent, and free," said Thaci, a former leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army. The army battled Serbian troops in a 1998-99 separatist war, which claimed 10,000 lives.
"We never lost faith in the dream that one day we would stand among the free nations of the world, and today we do."
"Our hopes have never been higher," he told the assembly. "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 pledged the new nation would be "a democratic, multiethnic state"—an attempt to reach out to Serbs who consider Kosovo the cradle of their culture and religion.
But he also had stern words for the Serbian government, which last week declared secession illegal and invalid.
Speaking in the Serbian language, Thaci said, "Kosovo will never be ruled by Belgrade again."
Thaci on Sunday signed 192 separate letters to nations around the world—including Serbia—asking them to recognize Kosovo as a state.
Serbia Rejects Bid
Serbian President Boris Tadic rejected the independence bid immediately, declaring Sunday's proclamation "unilateral and illegal." Kosovo's ten Serb lawmakers boycotted the parliamentary session in protest.
And Serbia's government minister for Kosovo, Slobodan Samardzic, said Sunday that Serbia would increase its presence in the roughly 15 percent of Kosovo that is Serb controlled—an apparent attempt to divide the province.
Serbia's government ruled out any military response as part of its secret "action plan" drafted earlier this week as a response. But the country said that it would downgrade relations with any foreign government that recognizes Kosovo's independence.
Russia's Foreign Ministry said Moscow supports Serbia's "just demands to restore the country's territorial integrity."
Russian President Vladimir Putin has argued that independence without UN approval would set a dangerous precedent for "frozen conflicts" across the former Soviet Union and around the world. He is pressuring the UN Security Council to intervene.
(Related: "Montenegro Splits From Serbia, Redrawing Europe's Map" [May 22, 2006].)
Before Kosovo's parliament voted, President Bush had said the U.S. will work to prevent violent clashes after the independence declaration. The U.S. State Department was reviewing the development with European allies as the province sought swift recognition from the West.
"The United States will continue to work with our allies to do the very best we can to make sure there's no violence," Bush said several hours before Kosovo's parliament approved the declaration.
"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.
"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."
Kosovo has formally remained a part of Serbia, even though the UN and NATO have administered Kosovo since 1999, when NATO air strikes ended former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic's crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists.
Sixteen thousand NATO-led peacekeepers still guard Kosovo, 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.
Spontaneous street celebrations broke out anew on Sunday, with giddy Kosovars waving Albanian and U.S. flags and dancing in the streets.
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