Jubilant crowds of ethnic Albanians celebrated on the streets of Kosovo today, waving red-and-black Albanian flags after the province's declaration of independence from Serbia.
The proclamation is the latest step in the bloody dissolution of Yugoslavia that began with the secession of Slovenia and Croatia 17 years ago.
In the ethnic Albanian section of the city of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, ethnic Albanians chanted, danced and congratulated each other on the main square. Posters plastered on the town's walls thanked America and occasionally the European Union for their support.
"I have been waiting for this all my life," 39-year-old Flora Saciri, who took to the streets with her husband and two children, told ABC News. "This is such a big day for us."
"The most important thing is that we are free now," her husband said.
An impoverished and mostly Muslim province bordered by Serbia in the north and Albania in the Southwest, Kosovo has long been a point of conflict in the war-torn Balkan Peninsula.
Ethnic Albanians, who with nearly 2 million people make up 90 percent of Kosovo's population, have struggled for years to achieve independence from what they say is illegitimate Serbian rule.
But Serbians have for centuries considered Kosovo an integral part of their nation, and the government has cracked down on ethnic Albanian separatist movements in the past. Serbian leaders today denounced Kosovo's declaration of independence as a breach of international law.
In the Serbian capital of Belgrade, angry crowds sang patriotic songs and attacked the American Embassy with stones, breaking windows and stopping traffic in nearby streets.
The declaration of independence also pits Belgrade against the United States and the EU, which have long supported Kosovo Albanians' aspirations to self-rule.
In 1999, a U.S.-led NATO bombing campaign halted a Serbian attack on Albanian separatists. Since then, the province has been patrolled by 16,000 NATO-led peacekeepers and administered by U.N. and NATO officials.
In a televised address today, Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica called an independent Kosovo "a false state" and accused the United States of propping up an unlawful regime, according to Reuters.
Belgrade's ally Russia was also quick to condemn the move and called on the United Nations to annul the declaration from Pristina, the capital of Kosovo.
"We expect the U.N. mission and NATO-led forces in Kosovo to take immediate action to carry out their mandate ... including the annulling of the decision of Pristina's self-governing organs and the taking of tough administrative measures against them," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
"The decisions by the Kosovo leadership create the risk of an escalation of tension and inter-ethnic violence in the province and of new conflict in the Balkans," the Russian statement said.
But the United States was measured in its reaction.
"The United States is now reviewing this issue and discussing the matter with its European partners," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. "The United States will remain steadfast in its support for the rights of all ethnic and religious communities in Kosovo."