THE HAGUE, Netherlands - The United Nations' highest court ruled yesterday that Kosovo's declaration of independence was legal, dealing a blow to Serbia, which vowed never to accept its former province as a separate state and warned the ruling could embolden separatist movements around the world.

Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci hailed the ruling as a "historic victory" and "the best possible answer for the entire world," while Foreign Minister Skender Hyseni said outside the International Court of Justice: "My message to the government of Serbia is 'Come and talk to us.' "

A tiny patch of the Balkans with a population of 2 million, Kosovo declared independence in February 2008 after years of fruitless talks with Belgrade about its desire to break away.

Issuing the nonbinding advisory opinion, International Court of Justice President Hisashi Owada said international law contains "no . . . prohibition of declarations of independence" and therefore Kosovo's declaration "did not violate general international law."

In the capital, Pristina, ethnic Albanians honked their horns and waved Kosovo and U.S. flags to celebrate the ruling.

"What happened today is the greatest joy for Kosovo since the declaration of independence," said ethnic Albanian Shpresa Gosalci. "It is something that has sealed our status forever."

Kosovo's independence has been accepted by 69 countries so far. UN diplomats say they expect the court's decision to spur recognition of Kosovo as an independent state. After more than 100 countries grant such recognition - more than half the 192 UN member states - a senior Western diplomat said it will in effect have achieved "full statehood."

Serbian President Boris Tadic said Serbia will propose to the UN General Assembly in September a resolution on Kosovo that will represent a "compromise" between Serbs and Kosovo Albanians.

"The only sustainable solution is one accepted by all sides," Tadic said.

The United States called the ruling "a judgment we support," said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley. "Now it is time for Europe to unite behind a common future."

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