UNITED NATIONS - Russia tried to block Kosovo's independence during a closed-door emergency session of the UN Security Council yesterday, saying it is deeply concerned about the safety of Serbs living in the territory.
The discussion among members of the 15-member council continued to expose their divisions on the future of Kosovo. Russia backs its close ally Serbia, while the United States, Britain, France, and other European Union members support Kosovo's majority ethnic Albanians.
The council met at the request of Serbia and Russia, which argue that Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia made earlier yesterday violates a 1999 council resolution that authorizes the UN to administer the territory.
The session got off to a rocky start; shortly after it began, the session had to be suspended for a couple hours because of a lack of interpreters.
Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Serbia's president told him that Kosovo's declaration carries no legal weight, while Kosovo's prime minister assured him he was committed to "equal opportunities and no discrimination" against anyone in Kosovo.
Ban urged all sides to "refrain from any actions or statements that could endanger peace, incite violence, or jeopardize security in Kosovo and the region."
The Security Council resolution on Kosovo remains in force and the UN "will continue to implement its mandate in the light of the evolving circumstances," Ban said.
Before the session, Russia's UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, said Moscow was "highly concerned" about yesterday's decision by Kosovo's parliament in Pristina "to declare unilateral independence of Kosovo."
The past Security Council resolution means the UN still runs Kosovo and "it is not obvious at all what could possibly be the legal basis for even considering" Kosovo's declaration of independence," Churkin said.
He specifically addressed the estimated 120,000 Serbs living in enclaves in Kosovo.
"Our concern is for the safety of the Serbs and other ethnic minorities in Kosovo," Churkin said. "We'll strongly warn against any attempts at repressive measures, should Serbs in Kosovo decide not to comply with this unilateral proclamation of independence."
The United States and other Western countries said that there was little danger to the Serbs in Kosovo and that the 1999 resolution does not preclude Kosovo's independence.
"We've knocked it down over and over again. This is an unprecedented situation, it creates no precedent," Alejandro Wolff, the US deputy ambassador to the UN, told reporters before the session.
Wolff said the United States is not "particularly concerned or sees no particular danger to be worried about" regarding the safety of Serbs in Kosovo.
"We're pleased by the commitments made to respect for religious and ethnic communities in Kosovo," he told reporters.
Kosovo's 2 million population is 90 percent ethnic Albanian, mainly secular Muslims, who do not want to be part of Serbia, a predominantly Christian Orthodox nation.
Kosovo has been under UN and NATO administration since a NATO-led air war halted a Serb crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists in 1999.
In April 2007, UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari recommended that Kosovo be granted internationally supervised independence - a proposal strongly supported by the province's ethnic Albanians, the United States, and most of the European Union, but vehemently opposed by Serbia and Russia, a traditional Serb ally.
Russia blocked the Ahtisaari plan. An additional period of negotiations failed to bridge the differences between the Serbs, who have offered wide autonomy, and Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leaders, who insist on independence.