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The breakaway Serbian province of Kosovo once again captured the international spotlight when it declared independence from the Republic of Serbiaon Feb. 17. The move by the majority ethnic Albanian population was condemned by Serbia and its staunch supporter Russia, but supported by many Western countries. The declaration also sparked riots in Serbia's capital, Belgrade, where protesters stormed and set fire to the U.S. Embassy . The history of the region may help provide answers to why Kosovo's independence evokes such strong emotions.

What is Kosovo?
Until its declaration of independence, the majority-Muslim region was a province of predominantly Christian Serbia. But it had not been effectively under Serbia's control since 1999, when NATO launched air strikes to halt a Serbian crackdown on Albanian separatists. A U.N. mission had governed Kosovo since.

How did Serbia greet Kosovo's independence?
In a word, unhappily. Serbia's foreign minister urged international condemnation of Kosovo's "illegal" declaration. Others took their anger to the streets, and Serbs in Serbia as well as Kosovo protested, sometimes violently. At one point the U.S. Embassy in the Serbian capital, Belgrade, was stormed and set afire.

Who else objects to Kosovo's independence?
Russia, China and some European Union members strongly object to letting Kosovo break away from Serbia over Serbia's objections.

Who supports it?
International heavyweights the United States, Britain, France and Germany all formally recognized Kosovo.

How far back does Serbian interest in Kosovo go?
Although Serbians are outnumbered 9-to-1 in Kosovo, many harken back to a time when Kosovo was predominantly Serbian. The region was captured by the Ottomans after the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, a date that is still commemorated by many Christian Serbs. Serbia won Kosovo back in 1912.

What happened to Kosovo and Yugoslavia during communism?
Yugoslavia became a communist country in 1945 under the command of Marshal Josip Broz Tito, who dealt with independence-minded residents by creating six republics — Croatia, Montenegro, Serbia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia. Kosovo was given autonomous status. In 1981, the Yugoslav army was sent into the province when Albanian students rioted over poor living conditions.

What happened then?
In 1989, Kosovo was stripped of its autonomy by the Yugoslav government of Slobodan Milosevic, who sent in the army again. This did not stop Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leaders from declaring independence the following year. The Milosevic government dissolved the provincial government and fired more than 100,000 ethnic Albanian workers. Soon after, Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia declared independence from Yugoslavia, and in 1992, war broke out in the Balkans. NATO launched air strikes against Serbia in 1999, and Albanians refugees poured out of Kosovo telling stories of Serbian atrocities.

What challenges does the new nation face?
While independence was welcomed euphorically by many Kosovars, the new nation is up against a number of challenges. It is poor, faces 40 percent unemployment, crumbling infrastructure, hostile neighbors and a scared and defensive Serb minority. It also will likely struggle over its ties to neighboring Albania; dreams of joining with the country will have to be put on the back burner if Kosovo wants to continue receiving international aid and maintain peace in the neighborhood. The new nation will also have to assure the European Union and United States that it remains faithful to its pledges to remain a tolerant, multi-ethnic state.

The BBC, Guardian newspaper, The Associated Press and Reuters AlertNet contributed to this report.

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