PODGORICA, Serbia-Montenegro, May 22, 2006 (AFP) -
Montenegro laid its own claim to nation status Monday after voting narrowly in favour of independence, consigning the last vestiges of former Yugoslavia to history.
The tiny Balkan state, wedged between the mountains and the sea and with a population of just 650,000 people, voted by 55.4 percent to split with Serbia and become fully independent, according to preliminary official results.
However, a final vote count -- still subject to possible official challenges -- would be announced early Tuesday, due to a delay in obtaining reports from certain polling stations in the capital, said Frantisek Lipka, head of the republic's referendum commission.
The European Union, which laid the groundwork for the plebiscite, promised to abide by the result. Crucially, so too did Montenegro's neighbours.
A jubilant Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic said Montenegro's next target was to restart membership talks with the European Union and NATO.
Montenegro's integration, he told a press conference, "remains a strategic and national priority."
The referendum result announced earlier was only slightly above the 55 percent threshold required for Sunday's vote to stand, with 44.6 percent of voters choosing to stay in the loose federation with Serbia.
Following the referendum, Montenegro's parliament must declare independence within 15 days of receiving the official results of the vote that the European security body OSCE described as "free and fair".
But pro-Serbian parties in Montenegro demanded a recount, citing irregularities.
Lipka however refused to comment on the their demands, describing them as a "political issue".
"I have not received any official objection to the vote," Lipka said.
"If some really big irregularities had happened, surely at least several objections would have been filed," he said.
In Belgrade, top Serbian officials -- many of them favouring the joint state -- were still mum on the outcome of Montenegro's referendum.
Both Serbia's President Boris Tadic and Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica will meet on Tuesday with EU special envoy for the referendum, Miroslav Lajcak to discuss the vote.
However, Serbian Finance Minister Mladjan Dinkic said the will of the majority had to be respected, hoping for "good neighbourhood relationship" with Montenegro in future.
Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik, whose nation holds the rotating EU presidency, said the referendum was "an important European signal after the tragic developments which the Balkans had to live through during the 1990s."
OSCE chairman Karel de Grucht said the referendum had been "fair and free" and added: "The result reflects the will of the people."
The United States applauded the "democratic and transparent" referendum on Montenegro's independence, but refused to immediately state a position on the vote separating the Balkan state from Serbia.
"Since the actual final decisions, as far as I know, have not been reached -- the actual final vote count has not been formally announced -- I think we're going to withhold comment on this issue until we see it then," said Tom Casey, a US State Department spokesman.
The referendum was possible under the 2003 constitution which bound Serbia and Montenegro in a federation and contained an escape clause allowing either side to vote on independence after three years together.
Many in Montenegro celebrated the independence, with several thousand people gathering in the ancient capital Cetinje, north from Podgorica.
Not everyone was so happy. "I can't believe this is happening. This is like separating meat from the bone," cried a woman selling newspapers, shaking her head in disbelief.
Analysts said Montenegro's independence drive would turn up the pressure to resolve the wrangle over Kosovo, the ethnic Albanian-dominated province which Serbs consider the birthplace of their national identity.
Tim Judah, a Balkans specialist at the Centre for European Reform based in London, said regional stability depended far more on Kosovo -- "the final act in this 15-year drama" -- than on Montenegro.
"Compared to Kosovo, Montenegro is easy," he said. "Kosovo is a much, much bigger problem."
The bloody wars of the 1990s had already led to Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia and Slovenia leaving what was then Yugoslavia.
"We were witnesses yesterday of the end of the Yugoslavia project, started in 1918 with sincere intentions," Prime Minister Vlado Buckovski of Macedonia said.