BELGRADE, Serbia July 22, 2010— -- Church bells rang out in unison across Serbia and Kosovo in protest today as Kosovo's declaration of independence was upheld by the International Court of Justice in the Hague ending two and half years of legal limbo for the former Serbian province.
Tensions rose with helicopters from the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo circling above the divided city of Mitrovica and blocking the bridge that separates Kosovo's majority Albanians from its minority Serbs.
Kosovo declared its independence two and a half years ago.
In 1998 a guerrilla movement, the Kosovo Liberation Army, took up arms to fight the Serbs. A ceasefire was negotiated at the time by American diplomat Richard Holbrooke who is now special envoy for President Obama in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In 1999 NATO forces led by the U.S. launched a 78-day bombing campaign which saw the expulsion of Serbian forces from all of Kosovo and Serbian rule from all but Serb areas. From then until February 2008 Kosovo came under UN administration with the help of NATO forces.
In a 10-4 ruling, the International Court of Justice backed Kosovo's declaration of independence, which has been recognized by the U.S. and most of the European Union states. Russia, China, India and Brazil have refused to recognize Kosovo as an independent country.
All national TV stations broadcast the court's ruling live, roads in the capital of Pristina were empty, and Kosovo's government officials gathered in the government meeting room to watch the court session. Cheers erupted from bars and cafes, where people had gathered to watch the judge deliver the court's opinion.
"This is a blessed day for Kosovo and its citizens," Kosovo President Fatmir Sejdiu said in a press conference in Pristina after the ICJ ruling.
Albanians Jubliant, Serbs Defiant
"This is a great day for Kosovo, and my message to the government of Serbia is 'Come and talk to us,'" Kosovo's foreign minister, Skender Hyseni, said after leaving the court, The Associated Press Reported.
The mood was much different among Serbs.
In the Serbian Orthodox monastery of Visoki Decani in western Kosovo, a man who identified himself only as Father Sava said he fears for the church's security. In the last few weeks, Albanian teenagers have thrown stones at the monastery and hurled insults at the monks in a way reminiscent of the run-up to anti-Serbian riots in 2004.
"We are in serious danger because we are seen as a symbol of Serbia, even though we are not acting politically," he says.
The monastery lies in the heartland of support for Ramush Haradinaj, Kosovo's former prime minister and leader of guerilla Kosovo Liberation Army during the 1998-1999 war with Serbia. Haradinaj was acquitted of war crimes by the U.N.'s war crimes tribunal in 2008, but was rearrested earlier this week because the appeals chamber found his trial to have been marred by witness intimidation.
Serbia's President Boris Tadic addressed the nation, saying that the court ruling will not change the position of Serbia regarding Kosovo -- that Kosovo is a Serbian province and did not have the right to self-determination.
Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic, the architect of the strategy of taking the question to the ICJ, was also defiant.
"Serbia will never, under any circumstances recognize the unilateral declaration of independence of the so-called Republic of Kosovo," Jeremic told reporters outside the International Court of Justice.
"Difficult days are ahead of us ... It is of crucial importance to keep the peace and to stabilize the entire territory of the province (Kosovo)," he added. "It is crucial that our citizens do not react to provocations."
Some tried to cool things down.
"Serbia needs to acknowledge reality in the region, which means also Kosovo's independence and really to proceed with constructive regional policy," Sonja Biserko, president of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia told ABCNews.com.
Serbs Refuse to Accept Kosovo Independence
But many Serbs, it is a difficult thing to accept.
Tens of thousands of ethnic Serbs fled Kosovo after the war and many still live in refugee camps in Serbia. One of those refugees, Snezana Petrovic, came to a prayer for Kosovo at Belgrade's mammouth St Sava Church.
"It's very hard to think about it. Still now I can't believe that I'm not living in my own country anymore," she says. "I feel like I'm a guest here. I still see Kosovo as a part of Serbia. Our roots and our hearts are there."
Retired historian Sava Vukicevic said, "History is obsession with the Serbs. Everyone is familiar with painting of withdrawal from Kosovo Polje in 1389, when Serbs lost to Ottoman Turks. It always has to be dramatic. The bells toll are commemorating yet another defeat but it is now a modern battle fought at the court room in the Hague."