Balkan leaders welcome Montenegro independence vote

Balkan leaders on Monday hailed Montenegro's vote for independence as another step towards recovery for the region from the wars that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia. The result of Sunday's referendum in the tiny mountainous state was "the final act of the dissolution of Yugoslavia," said Agim Ceku, the ethnic Albanian prime minister of Kosovo whose province is also seeking independence from Serbia.

"Before the end of the year, Kosovo will join Montenegro as a new state and these new countries will be an important factor for the stability of the whole region," Ceku said. Although still formally part of Serbia, Kosovo has been under U.N. administration since a 1999 NATO bombardment launched to end a crackdown on separatist ethnic Albanians by Serbia. Ethnic Albanians, who make up more than 90 percent of Kosovo's 2 million population, demand independence, while Serbs want the province to remain under Belgrade's control.

"The people of Montenegro have expressed their will to live in an independent country, sharing with others in the region the aspiration to join the European Union," Ceku said.

Vlado Buckovski, the prime minister of Macedonia, another former Yugoslav state, also welcomed the vote. "Yesterday we were witnesses to the end of the Yugoslav project, which was created a long time ago with good intentions. We welcome the (expression of the) will of the Montenegrins," he said after a meeting in Skopje with visiting Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sander.

Buckovski said the result could spur Serbia to intensify its effort for closer integration with the European Union stalled over failure to capture top Serb war crimes suspect Gen. Ratko Mladic. "We hope this will sober up Belgrade and force Serbia to look up into its Euro-Atlantic future," Buckovski said. Sander said the Montenegrin vote would "contribute to stability in this part of Europe," but did not elaborate.

In neighboring Albania, Prime Minister Sali Berisha celebrated the referendum result. "Yesterday's decision made our region freer, more stable and secure on the road toward Euro-Atlantic integration," Berisha said in the northern city of Shkodra, bordering Montenegro. "Together with Kosovo's final status its independence this decision will send the Balkan wars, conflicts, divisions, unfair punishment and artificial federations to the history books," Berisha said.

He also praised Belgrade's acceptance of the vote results. In Sunday's referendum, 55.4 percent voted for Montenegro to end its union with Serbia. The result was just above the minimum 55 percent threshold required by the European Union for the independence vote to be valid, reports the AP.