A day before the world's highest court begins deliberating the legality of Kosovo's split from Serbia last year, their leaders clashed Monday over the Western-backed statehood that has shaken the Balkans.
Kosovo President Fatmir Sejdiu said in an interview with The Associated Press that Serbia had "annexed" Kosovo with tanks and caused "great bloodshed." He said he is confident Kosovo's "arguments are invincible."
Serbia President Boris Tadic warned that a ruling by the Netherlands-based International Court of Justice approving Kosovo's independence declaration would set a precedent for secessionist movements around the world.
Tadic said he believes "legal arguments are on Serbia's side" and that the court will be aware of "the danger of ethnically motivated secession in international relations."
"Kosovo has never been part of Serbia," Sejdiu said. "It was a forceful annexation with tanks, with massacres and an annexation that has caused great bloodshed and moved the international community into humanitarian action."
NATO bombed Serbia for 78 days in 1999 in a bid to end a brutal crackdown by the forces of then President Slobodan Milosevic against separatist Kosovo Albanians. Some 10,000 Albanians were killed and close to a million forced out of their homes. Hundreds of Serbs were also killed in retaliatory attacks by Kosovo separatists.
Kosovo declared independence in February 2008 after almost two years of internationally monitored talks, that failed without an agreement. Serbia says Kosovo secession breaches international law and asked the court for an opinion.
The International Court of Justice, or ICJ, is the only international court with general jurisdiction, but its rulings are not legally binding.
Any of the United Nations 192 members can refer to the 15-judge tribunal, unofficially known as the World Court, to resolve disputes. So far, 66 nations have agreed to accept its decisions as binding.
Kosovo's independence has been recognized by 63 countries, including the United States and most European Union states. Serbia, backed by Russia in the UN Security Council, and a majority of world's states are against the recognition.
Sejdiu said most countries have preferred to wait for the ICJ ruling before deciding on the issue, but brushed aside the court could "rule against the will of the people."
"I can't say what the final ruling will be, but I can say that Kosovo's arguments are invincible.
"Faced with arguments, even the Gods are silent," Sejdiu said.
Serbia's legal representatives will be first to speak Monday in The Hague, Netherlands, followed by Kosovo.
Thereafter, 29 other countries including the United States, Russia, France and Britain will each get 45 minutes to present arguments in hearings that will wrap up Dec. 11.
The court is expected to take months to deliver its opinion. The last advisory opinion the ICJ gave was in 2004 when it ruled that Israel's planned 425-mile-long barrier in the West Bank violates international law and urged the United Nations to take action to stop its construction.
"In international law you do not need recognition to be a state, but it is politically important," said Bibi van Ginkel, an international law expert at the Netherlands' Clingendael Institute for International Relations.
"Under international law, the conditions for statehood are very simple. There must be a territory and a population and there must be effective authority," Van Ginkel said. "The first two are simple, but the third is very difficult to establish."
Associated Press writers Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, and Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Serbia, contributed to this report.