PRISTINA, Kosovo – Kosovo's leaders sent letters 192 countries Monday seeking formal recognition of independence, and suspense gripped the province as its citizens awaited key backing from the U.S. and key European powers.
A day after Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leadership made its historic declaration of independence from Serbia, tensions soared in the north, home to most of the territory's minority Serbs. An explosion damaged a U.N. vehicle outside the ethnically divided town of Kosovska Mitrovica, and Serbs planned demonstrations there and in an enclave outside Pristina.
President Fatmir Sejdiu played down the fears of renewed unrest, saying the government needed to set about the business of building a democratic country.
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"It will be a big day today because we have lots of things that we need to start and finish," Sejdiu said Monday. "We need continuous work and commitment, and we are fully dedicated to fulfilling the promises to better our state."
Sunday's declaration was carefully orchestrated with the U.S. and key European powers, and Kosovo was counting on international recognition expected to come during Monday's meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels, Belgium.
Slovenia Foreign Minister Dimitri Rupel, whose country holds the EU presidency, told reporters in Brussels he expected many European countries to recognize Kosovo.
But Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, whose country has struggled with its own separatist movement in the Basque region, said his government "is not going to recognize the unilateral act proclaimed yesterday by the Kosovar assembly." Greece, Romania, Cyprus and Slovakia have expressed the same view.
On Sunday, Kosovo's lawmakers achieved what a bloody 1998-99 separatist war with Serbian forces could not: They pronounced the disputed province the Republic of Kosovo, and pledged to make it a "democratic, multiethnic state."
The proclamation sent thousands of jubilant ethnic Albanians into the streets overnight, where they waved red-and-black Albanian flags, fired guns and fireworks into the air and danced. One couple named their newborn daughter Pavarsie — Albanian for "independence."
"This is the happiest day in my life," said Mehdi Shehu, 68. "Now we're free and we can celebrate without fear."
Kosovo had formally remained a part of Serbia even though it has been administered by the U.N. and NATO since 1999, when NATO airstrikes ended former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic's crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists, which killed 10,000 people.
Ninety percent of Kosovo's 2 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.
The 192 letters included one to Serbia, but the Belgrade government made clear it would never accept Kosovo's statehood. On Monday, 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.
Russia also rejected the declaration and persuaded the U.N. Security Council to meet in emergency session Sunday in an attempt to block Kosovo's secession. The council was to meet again later Monday.
The European Union and NATO, mindful of the Balkans' turbulent past, appealed for restraint and warned that the international community would not tolerate violence.
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.
"From today onwards, Kosovo is proud, independent and free," said Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, a former leader of the now-disbanded Kosovo Liberation Army. "We never lost faith in the dream that one day we would stand among the free nations of the world, and today we do."
By sidestepping the U.N. and appealing directly to the U.S. and other nations for recognition, Kosovo's independence set up a showdown with Serbia — outraged at the imminent loss of its territory — and Russia, which warned that it would set a dangerous precedent for separatist groups worldwide.
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.
Serbia's government 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.