THE HAGUE, Netherlands — The United Nations' highest court ruled Thursday that Kosovo's declaration of independence was legal, dealing a blow to Serbia, which vowed never to accept its former province as a separate state and warned the ruling could embolden separatist movements around the world.
Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci hailed the ruling as a "historic victory" and "the best possible answer for the entire world," while Foreign Minister, Skender Hyseni, said outside the International Court of Justice: "my message to the government of Serbia is 'Come and talk to us.'"
A tiny patch of the Balkans with a population of 2 million, Kosovo declared independence in February 2008 after years of fruitless talks with Belgrade about its desire to break away.
Issuing the nonbinding advisory opinion, International Court of Justice President Hisashi Owada said international law contains "no ... prohibition of declarations of independence" and therefore Kosovo's declaration "did not violate general international law."
In the capital, Pristina, ethnic Albanians honked their horns and waved Kosovo and U.S. flags to celebrate the ruling.
"What happened today is the greatest joy for Kosovo since the declaration of independence," said ethnic Albanian Shpresa Gosalci. "It is something that has sealed our status forever."
Kosovo's independence has been accepted by 69 countries so far. U.N. diplomats say they expect the court's decision to spur recognition of Kosovo as an independent state. After more than 100 countries grant such recognition – more than half the 192 U.N. member states – a senior Western diplomat said it will in effect have achieved "full statehood."
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will forward the advisory opinion to the General Assembly "which had requested the court's advice and which will determine how to proceed on this matter," U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said.
"The secretary-general strongly encourages the parties to engage in a constructive dialogue," Nesirky told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York. "The secretary-general urges all sides to avoid any steps that could be seen as provocative and derail the dialogue."
Serbia's diplomatic campaign to prevent recognition of Kosovo has left the fledgling nation in limbo and cut off from international organizations and European Union membership. Serbia's stance is likely also hampering Kosovo's attempts to join the EU, as the bloc insists member states have friendly relations with their neighbors.
In a statement, EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said the future of Serbia and Kosovo lies in the EU.
"Good neighborly relations, regional cooperation and dialogue are the foundations on which the EU is built," Ashton said. "The EU is therefore ready to facilitate a process of dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade."
Kosovo had been under international administration for nearly a decade following a bloody 1998-99 war with Serbia, and thousands of NATO troops are still stationed there guarding a tense peace. Some 90 percent of the population is ethnic Albanian; the rest are mostly Serbs.
Serbia argues that Kosovo has been the cradle of its civilization and national identity since 1389, when a Christian army led by Serbian Prince Lazar lost an epic battle to invading Ottoman forces.
"Serbia has its history, Serbia has its roots, Serbia has its faith and they are all related to our policy in Kosovo," Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic said.
Serbian President Boris Tadic said Serbia will propose to the U.N. General Assembly in September a resolution on Kosovo that will represent a "compromise" between Serbs and Kosovo Albanians.
"The only sustainable solution is one accepted by all sides," Tadic said.
The United States called the ruling "a judgment we support," said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley. "Now it is time for Europe to unite behind a common future."
Jeremic warned, however, that the ruling could encourage separatist movements elsewhere around the world who would now be "tempted to write declarations of independence."
"We will never recognize the unilateral declaration of Kosovo's independence," Jeremic told reporters on the steps of the court's Peace Palace headquarters in The Hague.
"Difficult times are ahead ... but it is crucial that our people don't react to any possible provocations," Jeremic said, amid fears that angered ultranationalists in Serbia and Kosovo might become violent. Ultranationalists set the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade on fire when Kosovo declared independence in 2008.
Serbia's ultranationalist Radical Party said the court had "gravely violated" international law, and called on the government to demand an urgent session of the U.N. Security Council to end the EU peacekeeping mission in Kosovo.
And in Kosovo's divided northern city of Mitrovica, Kosovo Serb Tihomir Markovic called the ruling shameful.
"Justice is on our side, God is on our side," he said. "After this it will be hard for us – the Serbs in Kosovo."
NATO-led troops increased their presence Thursday in the Serb-controlled part of Mitrovica.
In Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the ruling would not affect the role of the 10,000-strong peacekeeping force in Kosovo, known as KFOR.
"KFOR will continue to implement its mandate to maintain a safe and secure environment in an impartial manner throughout Kosovo, for the benefit of all communities, majority and minority alike," he said.
Associated Press Writers Dusan Stojanovic and Jovana Gec in Belgrade, Nebi Qena in Pristina, Edith Lederer at the United Nations and Slobodan Lekic in Brussels contributed to this report.