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Kosovo declares independence from Serbia

Around a thousand Kosovo Albanian emigrants celebrate in front of parliament in Bern Keystone

Kosovo has declared itself a nation, ending a long chapter in the bloody break-up of Yugoslavia.

This content was published on February 17, 2008 - 16:40

Across Switzerland, which in 2005 became the first state worldwide to call for formal independence, thousands of Kosovars celebrated the birth of the world's newest country on Sunday afternoon by driving through towns and waving flags.

Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey on Sunday repeated Switzerland's "total support" for Kosovo and said the issue of recognising the state would be discussed by the government over the coming weeks. Only then, the foreign ministry added, would talks on diplomatic relations be possible.

"From today onwards, Kosovo is proud, independent and free," said Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, a former leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army, which battled Serbian troops in a 1998-99 separatist war that claimed 10,000 lives.

Belgrade bitterly opposes the secession. Backed by Russia, Serbs vow never to give up the territory, in which their history goes back 1,000 years. But the West supports the demand of Kosovo's two million ethnic Albanians for their own state, nine years after Nato went to war to save them from Serbian forces.

Kosovo will be the sixth state carved from the former Serbian-dominated Yugoslav federation since 1991, after Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, Bosnia and Montenegro.

Serbs in the north of Kosovo, adjoining Serbia proper, will reject independence, cementing an ethnic partition that will weigh on the new state for years to come. Fewer than half of Kosovo's 120,000 remaining Serbs live in the north, while the rest are in scattered enclaves protected by Nato peacekeepers.

Swiss support

Switzerland is home to ten per cent of Kosovo's ethnic Albanians, making its fate a prominent political issue. Micheline Calmy-Rey has publicly declared her support for the province's independence and it was recently announced that a Swiss peacekeeping force would remain there until 2011.

Calmy-Rey, speaking on Sunday morning at a Mass for the Catholic Albanian mission in Wil, northeastern Switzerland, told the audience: "You have the privilege, but also the responsibility, to seize the opportunity to create out of your homeland a role model for Europe and for the world."

She urged those present to become ambassadors for a Kosovo "that would not become a mono-ethnic state but would view diversity and the protection of minorities as a true strength and value".

Calmy-Rey added that the protection of linguistic and religious minorities could only work with strong institutions, the will of the people and the "support, or at least the goodwill, of the powerful".

Not all Swiss however have been so supportive of an independent Kosovo. Swiss law professor Thomas Fleiner, who is also an advisor to the Serbian government, has claimed that Swiss support for Kosovo's independence is unconstitutional.

He said article 54 of the constitution requires Switzerland to do all it can to contribute to the "peaceful coexistence of peoples". A solution based on a compromise between the Serbs and the Kosovars would bring more security than a unilateral declaration of independence, he has argued.

On Sunday the Swiss foreign ministry added that it intended to keep on good terms with Serbia, pointing out it had supported the Serbian people and government during "dark years".

Divided EU

Sunday's declaration was carefully orchestrated with the US and key European powers, and Kosovo was counting on swift international recognition that could come as early as Monday, when EU foreign ministers meet in Brussels, Belgium.

However, the European Union's 27 nations were divided on Sunday over whether to recognise Kosovo's statehood.

Diplomats said about 20 EU nations – led by Britain, France, Germany and Italy – were keen to recognise Kosovo's break from Serbia. However, Cyprus, Greece, Spain, Romania were vehemently against it. Slovakia, too, has voiced doubts but could move toward recognising Kosovo's statehood, diplomats said.

After the declaration of independence the 15-member UN Security Council, which also remains deeply divided on the future of Kosovo, said it was planning to meet on Sunday in an emergency session at the request of Russia.

swissinfo with agencies

In brief

Kosovo has been run by the United Nations, backed by Nato troops, since the alliance's 1999 bombing campaign to end a Serb crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists.

The 90% Albanian majority reject return to Serb rule. Newly elected leaders of the province promised to coordinate a declaration of independence with the US and the EU, which is due to take over supervision of the territory from the UN.

Switzerland is not part of the group of nations - Germany, the US, France, Britain, Italy and Russia – that are attempting to determine the fate of Kosovo, but it is actively involved in the debate.

Up to 220 Swiss soldiers are deployed as part of the multinational Kosovo Force (Kfor). An additional 50 peacekeepers can be sent to the province for stints lasting up to two months in the case of a deteriorating situation.

The mandate of this Swisscoy force was extended to 2011 by the Swiss government in December last year.

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Key facts

Switzerland is home to 200,000 of the Kosovar diaspora.

This is the second-largest immigrant community after Italians.

300,000 people in Switzerland come from the former Yugoslavia.

Switzerland has some 200 troops stationed in Kosovo.

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History of Kosovo and Serbia

Until the 14th century Kosovo was the centre of the Serbian empire. It occupies a special place in Serbian history as the site of the battle of Kosovo Polje of 1389, in which the Ottomans smashed the Serbian army, and which became a symbol for Serbian resistance to the Ottomans.

After the Second World War Kosovo became an autonomous area within Serbia.

The Serbian army occupied the province in 1999. Hundreds of thousands of people fled the ensuing conflict – many of them to Switzerland. In the summer of 1999 Nato intervention forced the Serbs to withdraw.

Kosovo was placed under a transitional UN administration at the end of the war. Elections held in 2007 brought to power the Albanian Democratic Party, which had promised to declare independence.

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