PRISTINA, Kosovo — To the beat of drums and blast of fireworks, jubilant ethnic Albanians in the Serbian province of Kosovo declared themselves the world's newest nation Sunday.
But the declaration of independence, which is backed by the United States and other Western powers, is likely to trigger an international diplomatic crisis over whether to recognize the new state.
"Now, all together, we are creating history," declared Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, before presenting the declaration to Kosovo's assembly for approval. "We are becoming an equal in the democratic world."
Despite conciliatory words from Kosovo's Albanian leaders, who promised to create a secular, democratic state that protects the rights of all its citizens, the declaration was met with fear and hostility by the region's isolated Serb minority. Serbian leaders — backed by Russia, which supports Serbia's claim to the territory — pledged never to recognize an independent Kosovo and called on Serbs there to resist the new state. But they also ruled out a violent response.
In Pristina, Kosovo's capital, ethnic Albanians celebrated the declaration of independence with honking horns and gunfire, dancing to the sounds of American hip-hop and enjoying free beer and cake provided by local companies. Thousands waited in the freezing cold to sign a giant metal sculpture with 10-foot-tall letters spelling out the word "NEWBORN."
"This is the happiest moment in our lives," declared an ecstatic Ekrem Zhdrella, who was celebrating on one of Pristina's main streets with a scarf bearing the word "Kosovo" wrapped around his neck. "This is what we have been waiting for."
Most Kosovo Albanians are Muslim, but the brand of religion practiced here is largely moderate and America is loved for its staunch support of Kosovan independence. In street celebrations, many people carried American flags, some shouting, "Independence, independence, freedom, freedom."
On Sunday, as part of the ceremonies, Kosovo's government unveiled a new, multi-ethnic flag — blue with a map of Kosovo and stars representing each of the country's six ethnic groups — intended to be a banner under which Kosovo's different peoples could unite. Ethnic Albanian leaders also reached out to the Serbian minority, promising that the new Republic of Kosovo would be a multi-ethnic state.
"We are aware that minorities here look to independence with fear and suspicion," said Kosovo's president, Fatmir Sejdiu, during the declaration ceremony. "But we will do everything to respect their rights and property in an independent Kosovo."
But beneath all the talk of a diverse future, there was a strong sense of victory for Kosovo's Albanian population, who never felt they fit into the old Yugoslavia, isolated as they were by language and religion.
"Today I will cry out Kosovo Republic," wrote Berat Buzhala, the editor of Kosovo's Albanian-language Express newspaper. "An arsenal of revenge against Yugoslavia is hidden within this cry."
For many of Kosovo's ethnic Albanians, this day was the fulfillment of a long-cherished dream for their own state, and the symbol of the day was the red and black eagled flag of neighboring Albania. Ethnic Albanian independence fighters were honored at the official ceremonies and posters bearing the images of deceased guerrilla fighters appeared around the city.
Kosovo's Serbian population has shrunk since 1999, when a NATO bombing campaign — intended to halt a brutal crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists that left 10,000 dead — effectively ended Serbian rule over the province and established international rule there.
Most of the estimated 100,000 Serbs still remaining live primarily in isolated enclaves under the protection of NATO troops, some 16,000 of whom still keep the peace here. But Kosovo was the heart of a medieval Serbian kingdom, and Serbs still see the region as their cultural and religious heartland.
In the divided city of Mitrovica, Kosovan Serbs watched nervously as ethnic Albanians in the south of the city celebrated with gunfire while NATO troops patrolled the sky and roads. Hundreds of angry protestors gathered near the bridge separating the two sides, waving Serbian flags, and an explosion damaged a United Nations building. In the Serbian capital of Belgrade, protestors attacked the United States Embassy.
"A new country is being established by breach of international law," declared Serbia's minister of Kosovo, Slobodan Samardzic, who visited the northern part of Mitrovica on Sunday. "It's better to call it a fake country."
Thaci acknowledged that many challenges lay ahead for the new state, not least of which will be the divided response to the declaration. But many ordinary Kosovans expressed confidence that America's friendship would see them through any future troubles.
"I don't worry because we have the United States' support," said Bajram Berisha, a 25-year-old engineering student, who was celebrating draped in an Albanian flag. "We believe in the United States."
(Itano is a McClatchy special correspondent)