Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia in February 2008 did not violate international law, said the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on Thursday in a groundbreaking ruling that could have far-reaching implications for separatist movements around the world, as well as for Belgrade's stalled EU membership talks.

The long-awaited ruling — which the court took up after a complaint to the U.N. from Serbia — is now likely to lead to more countries recognising Kosovo's independence and move Pristina closer to entry into the U.N. Kosovo's statehood is backed by 69 countries but it requires over 100 before it can join the U.N.

Announcing the decision, the Court of Justice President, Hisashi Owada, said international law contains no “prohibition on declarations of independence”.

Though both Belgrade and Pristina had said they were confident of a ruling in their favour, speculation began to emerge a few hours before announcement in the Hague that the decision — which is not legally binding — had gone Kosovo's way.

Key considerations that the U.N.'s top court examined — arising out of dozens of submissions by U.N. member-states as well as by Kosovo's own leadership — have focused on issues of sovereignty, the slim volume of precedent in international law, and how formerly large states such as the USSR broke up along administrative borders.

Serbia has continued to demand Kosovo be returned, arguing it has been the cradle of their civilisation and national identity since 1389, when a Christian army led by Serbian Prince Lazar lost an epic battle to invading Ottoman forces.

The ruling is expected to have profound ramifications on the wider international stage, bolstering demands for recognition by territories as diverse as Northern Cyprus, Somaliland, Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Transnistria.

Kosovo sparked sharp debate worldwide when it seceded from Serbia in 2008, following the bloody 1998-99 war and almost a decade of international administration. The 1998-99 war, triggered by a brutal crackdown by Serb forces against Kosovo's separatist ethnic Albanians, left about 10,000 ethnic Albanians dead before ending after a 78-day NATO bombing campaign. Hundreds of Serbs were also killed in retaliatory attacks.

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