PRISTINA, Kosovo The province of Kosovo declared independence from Serbia on Sunday, sending tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians streaming through the streets to celebrate what they hoped was the end of a long and bloody struggle for national self-determination.
Kosovo's bid to be recognized as Europe's newest country after a civil war that killed 10,000 people a decade ago and then years of limbo as a U.N. protectorate was the latest episode in the dismemberment of the former Yugoslavia, 17 years after its dissolution began.
It brings to a climax a showdown between the West, which argues that Serbia's brutal subjugation of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority cost it any right to rule the territory, and the Serbian government and its allies in the Kremlin. They counter that Kosovo's independence is a reckless breach of international law that will spur other secessionist movements across the world.
As Albanians danced in the streets and fired guns in the air in the capital, Pristina, international reaction was sharply divided, suggesting that the clash between the principles of sovereignty and self-determination was far from resolved.
Britain, France and Germany were expected to be the first to recognize the new nation as early as today, while other countries, fearing separatist movements within their own borders, have said they would refuse. Russia demanded an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council to proclaim the declaration "null and void," but the meeting produced no resolution.
President Bush, speaking in Tanzania, said the United States would continue to work to prevent violence in Kosovo, while reaching out to Serbia. He said that resolving the conflict in Kosovo was essential to stability in the Balkans and that "the Serbian people can know that they have a friend in America."
The United States and additional European Union member states were expected to recognize Kosovo's independence in the coming days.
Hundreds of people celebrated in Times Square of New York City, waving Albanian flags, driving in circles and chanting to the crowds gathered on the sidewalks.
In declaring independence, Kosovo's prime minister, Hashim Thaci, a former leader of the guerrilla force that just over 10 years ago began an armed rebellion against Serbian domination, struck a note of reconciliation. Addressing Parliament in both Albanian and Serbian, he pledged to protect the rights of Kosovo's Serbian minority.
"I feel the heartbeat of our ancestors," he said. "We, the leaders of our people, democratically elected, through this declaration proclaim Kosovo an independent and sovereign state."
Kosovo, a desperately poor, predominantly Muslim landlocked territory of 2 million, has been a U.N. protectorate since 1999, policed by 16,000 NATO troops. Its unemployment rate is about 60 percent, and the average monthly wage is $250. Electricity is so undependable that lights go out in the capital several times a day. Corruption is rife, and human trafficking threatens to entrench a lawless state on Europe's doorstep. Ethnic Albanians from as far away as the United States poured into Pristina over the weekend, braving freezing temperatures and heavy snow to dance in frenzied jubilation. Beating drums, waving Albanian flags and throwing firecrackers, they chanted: "Independence! Independence! We are free at last!"
A 100-foot-long birthday cake was installed on Pristina's main boulevard.
In an outpouring of adulation for the United States, the architect of NATO's 1999 bombing campaign against Serbian forces under President Slobodan Milosevic, revelers unfurled giant American flags, carried posters of former President Bill Clinton and chanted, "Thank you, USA" and "God bless America."
The spirit of exaltation in Pristina contrasted sharply with the despair, anger and disbelief that gripped Serbia and the Serbian enclaves of northern Kosovo. In Belgrade, Serbia's capital, as many as 2,000 angry Serbs converged on the U.S. Embassy, hurling stones and smashing windows.
In the Kosovo Serb stronghold of Mitrovica, a grenade was thrown at a U.N. building, the police said. No one was injured.
Vojislav Kostunica, the prime minister of Serbia, which has regarded Kosovo as its heartland since medieval times, vowed that Serbia would never recognize the "false state."
In an address on national television on Sunday, He said Kosovo was propped up unlawfully by the United States and called the declaration a "humiliation" for the European Union.
The European Commission, the European Union's executive branch, appealed for calm, while NATO's secretary general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, said the alliance would respond "swiftly and firmly against anyone who might resort to violence."
Kosovo's sovereignty remains severely circumscribed, making it reliant on the international community. NATO still provides international security, while the European Union has agreed to send an 1,800-member police and judicial mission to help run the territory after the United Nations leaves.
Ulrich Wilhelm, the spokesman for the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, said Germany would decide today what to do.
Kosovo played a central role in the collapse of the Yugoslav federation built by the Communist strongman Josip Broz Tito, who died in 1980. Albanian nationalism erupted in Kosovo in 1981, leading to bloody clashes.
In the '80s, Milosevic used Serbs' sense of grievance that their ancestral heartland was now dominated by Muslim Albanians to come to power in Serbia. By 1989, he had abolished Kosovo's autonomy, fired tens of thousands of Albanians from their jobs, suppressed Albanian language education and controlled the territory with a heavy police presence.
Ten years ago, Milosevic's forces fought the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army, killing a guerrilla leader and his family at their compound. As violence escalated, NATO intervened in a 1999 bombing campaign, causing hundreds of thousands of Albanians and Serbs to flee.
An estimated 10,000 civilians were killed in the 1998-99 conflict, many of them Albanians, while 1,500 Serbs perished in revenge killings that followed.
For the ethnic Albanians who make up 95 percent of Kosovo's population, independence marks a new beginning.
"Independence is a catharsis," said Antoneta Kastrati, 26, an Albanian from Peja, who said her mother and older sister were killed by their Serbian neighbors in 1999. "Things won't change overnight and we cannot forget the past, but maybe I will feel safe now and my nightmares will finally go away."
In Mitrovica, a 70-year-old Serbian engineer who would give only his first name, Svetozar, said: "I will stay here forever. This will always be Serbia."
Kosovo's declaration created immediate ripples in the former Soviet Union, where small, Russian-backed separatist areas one in Moldova and two in the republic of Georgia have existed since the early 1990s. Two of them Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia announced their intention to seek recognition as independent states.
Conversely, several of the European Union's 27 member states including Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Slovakia and Romania oppose recognizing Kosovo because they fear encouraging secessionist movements within their own borders.
In Brussels, Belgium, officials were drafting a statement for a foreign ministers' meeting today. Senior European Union officials said they expected it would acknowledge Kosovo's independence declaration without explicitly endorsing it.
The declaration of independence raises the prospects of a new constitution and emblems of nationhood, including a new flag bearing a map of Kosovo topped by six stars.But in a sign of how hard it will be to forge the kind of multiethnic, secular identity foreign powers have urged, the distinctive two-headed eagle of the red and black Albanian flag, reviled by Serbs, was everywhere Sunday, held by revelers, draped on horses, flapping out of car windows and hanging outside homes and storefronts across the territory.
Contributing: Warren Hoge, C.J. Chivers, Nicholas Kulish