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Feb 17, 2008 at 09:14pm IST

Birth of a nation: Kosovo declares independence

Pristina, (Kosovo): Kosovo has formally declared its independence from Serbia and become the world's newest state in a move opposed by Serbia and Russia but backed by many western governments.

Lawmakers in the legislature of the former Serbian province approved the declaration of independence at an extraordinary session Sunday afternoon. It was read out in Albanian, Serbian and English by prime minister Hashim Thaci before the approval of state symbols including Kosovar's new national flag and anthem.

Thaci said that Kosovo was an "independent and democratic" state, adding: "From this day onwards, Kosovo is proud, independent and free."

NEW MOVE: Kosovo's PM Hashim Thaci greets the crowd as he walks in Kosovo's capital Pristina.

CNN's Alessio Vinci, reporting from the Kosovar capital Pristina, said that thousands of Kosovo's Albanian population had braved the freezing wind and cold to sing, dance, wave flags in the streets and light firecrackers ahead of the much anticipated vote. "It's been like this for several hours now," he said.

President George Bush said on Sunday that Kosovo's status must be resolved before the Balkans can become stable and that the United States supports the Ahtisaari plan which calls for a form of supervised independence.

The European Union decided Saturday to launch a mission of about 2,000 police and judicial officers to replace the United Nations mission that has been controlling the province since the end of the war with Serbia in 1999.

Kosovo has been under UN supervision and patrolled by a NATO-led peacekeeping force since the end of the three-month war, in which NATO warplanes pounded Serbia to roll back a campaign of "ethnic cleansing" of the province's Albanian population under former then-President Slobodan Milosevic.

The disputed province is dear to the Serbs, Orthodox Christians who regard it as Serbian territory. But it is equally coveted by Kosovo's ethnic Albanians, Muslims who have a 90 percent majority, and two years of talks on its final status ended in failure last December.

"Its status must be resolved in order for the Balkans to be stable," President Bush told reporters during a news conference in Tanzania Sunday.

Bush said the Ahtisaari plan - named after former Finnish President Marti Ahtisaari - is the best option. The proposal would give Kosovo limited statehood under international supervision.

President Bush added that "it's in Serbia's interest to be aligned with Europe and the Serbian people can know that they have a friend in America."

"We are heartened by the fact that the Kosovo government has clearly proclaimed its willingness and its desire to support Serbian rights in Kosovo," Bush said.

Thaci said Thursday he would establish a new government office for minorities and it would protect the rights of minorities after the province declares independence.

Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic has promised his country will refrain from using force against Kosovo after independence, though he has warned that Serbia will take punitive diplomatic, political, and economic measures against the province.