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Kosovo Marks Anniversary With Serbia Warning

Kosovar Albanians celebrate the first anniversary of Kosovo's independence in Pristina.
PRISTINA (Reuters) -- Tens of thousands of Kosovar Albanians celebrated the first anniversary of their declaration of independence, despite President Fatmir Sejdiu's warning that Serbia is challenging its former province's secession.

"Serbia is continuing its interference and has the tendency to destabilize us," Sejdiu said in an address to parliament.

Kosovo, the smallest Balkan nation, seceded from Serbia in 2008, nine years after the end of a 1998-1999 war between Belgrade's security forces and ethnic Albanian guerrillas.

Last October, the United Nations approved Serbia's request to ask the Netherlands-based International Court of Justice whether Kosovo's secession is legal. It will take up to two years for the ruling.

Sejdiu said "the mentality of the conflict and hate is still present in the heads and institutions in Serbia." He added: "These destabilizing policies of Belgrade do not help Serbs or the region."

At a meeting in Zvecan, just outside the ethnically divided northern town of Mitrovica, 80 Serbian lawmakers from Belgrade and 31 delegates from the Kosovo's Association of Serb municipalities adopted a declaration that denounced the territory's independence.

After the session, Slobodan Samardzic, a Serb politician from the nationalist Democratic Party of Serbia, said, "Kosovo didn't move an inch from where it was a year ago."

Police had increased their presence in Mitrovica.

Earlier on February 17, hundreds rallied against Kosovo independence in Serbia's second-largest city of Novi Sad. There were no major incidents.

Serbia's capital, Belgrade, where embassies and businesses were attacked last year after Kosovo's secession were calm, but police strengthened security around diplomatic missions.

Free Champagne

In Pristina, streets in the centre of the city were closed for traffic as hundreds of thousands prepared to party. Restaurants and a brewery offered free champagne and beer in a country where 90 percent of the population are moderate Muslims.

Vendors at the main Mother Theresa square were selling Kosovo's yellow and blue flags. Flags of neighboring Albania and the United States, both staunch backers of Kosovo's secession, also topped the list of best-sellers.

Serbia and its huge ally Russia remain opposed to Kosovo independence although it has been recognized by the United States and its key European allies.

On February 16, Serbia's President Boris Tadic told Reuters his country would never recognize Kosovo. "Serbia will never take a single action that implies Kosovo's independence," he said.

Kosovo's military conflict with Serbia ended in 1999 after NATO's 78-day bombing campaign forced Serb troops out of the then southern province. In the following years, Kosovo was an international protectorate patrolled by NATO peacekeepers.

Over the past year, the 2-million-strong republic, of whom 90 percent are ethnic Albanians, has established many trappings of a state, including a new constitution, an army, national anthem, flag, passports, identity cards, and an intelligence agency.