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(photo credit: AP)
Independence backers declared victory at Montenegro's vote on secession from Serbia, although the unionists refused to concede defeat and the state electoral commission said official results will not be published before Monday.
Thousands of independence supporters flooded the streets of the capital Podgorica and other towns to celebrate an apparent victory of their bloc at the vote Sunday on the Balkan republic's secession from much larger Serbia.
"I congratulate you on your state," pro-independence Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic said hours after the polls closed. "Today, the citizens of Montenegro voted to restore their statehood."
"This is the most important day in Montenegro's recent history," Djukanovic added.
Outside the government building in Podgorica, thousands of supporters fired guns in the air in celebratory fire, and drove up and down the main street, honking the car horns and waving red-and-golden Montenegrin flags.
But tensions rose as the anti-independence faction refused to concede defeat, urging their opponents to return to their homes and wait for the official results. Predrag Bulatovic, leader of the unionist bloc acknowledged that the rivals were in the lead, but cautioned against hasty predictions.
"Every single vote is important," Bulatovic said. "It is very important that the result of this referendum be verified in a proper manner."
The EU-appointed head of the state electoral commission, Frantisek Lipka, also refused to make any formal announcements, saying he cannot give any estimates before all the votes are counted by mid-morning Monday.
Djukanovic insisted the pro-independence bloc has won 55.5 percent of the votes, or some 40,000 votes more than their rivals.
The state-run television showed reports of celebrations all over this mountainous republic on the Adriatic Sea, whose population is just over 620,000 people. The TV congratulated the citizens on gaining independence, declaring Sunday "the day for history."
The independent Center for Monitoring also said 55.5 percent of voters opted for independence. The group said that their tally of the vote was based on all the votes counted and will not change.
If that result is confirmed by official returns, it would confirm the split of the Serbia-Montenegro union, and write the final chapter in the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.
In Belgrade, the Serbian officials also urged calm and patience until the official results are announced. Serbia, too, will become a separate state after the breakup of the Serbia-Montenegro union _ a successor state to former Yugoslavia.
Montenegro was the only former Yugoslav republic that remained in a union with Serbia after the ex-Balkan federation dissolved in a series of bloody wars in the early 1990s'. But the pro-independence drive has gained strength in Montenegro over the years, climaxing in the Sunday's referendum.
Once an independent kingdom, Montenegro was erased from the map after World War I and merged into the newly formed Yugoslavia. Many Montenegrins resisted and a seven-year guerrilla war followed.
Montenegro's pro-independence bloc has argued that Montenegro must restore its statehood before it can move forward. But the pro-Serb camp insists that is too small and weak to be viable on its own.
Testifying of the importance of the referendum for Montenegro, the turnout on Sunday was about 87 percent - the highest than at any election ever in the Balkan republic.
The division between anti- and pro-independence groups is deeply rooted in the small nation's history, and some feared there could be violence whatever the outcome. The independence bloc must garner more than 55 percent of the ballots cast for the decision to be valid.
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