UN court hears Serbian challenge to Kosovo* Serbia disputes legality of Kosovo independence
* Non-binding, advisory opinion due in several months
By Aaron Gray-Block and Reed Stevenson
THE HAGUE, Dec 1 (Reuters) - Serbia told a U.N. court at the start of hearings on Tuesday that Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence was a "flagrant violation" of Serbia's territorial integrity and undermined international law and order.
Serbia, Kosovo's former ruler, rejected the declaration and called on the International Court of Justice to give an advisory opinion on its legality.
A decade after NATO bombing ended a two-year war between Serbia and ethnic Kosovo Albanians, Serbian ambassador to France Dusan Batakovic told the court "Kosovo is the historic cradle of Serbia and ... one of the essential pillars of its identity."
The envoy told the 15-judge panel in The Hague on the first day of oral hearings he hoped the court's ruling would provide scope for talks with Kosovo about its future status and contribute to "peace and stability".
"This opportunity on no account should be wasted," he said.
The United States and most other Western nations have recognised Kosovo's independence, but Serbia rejected it, as did its ally Russia, which fears it could set a dangerous precedent for separatist movements.
Observers say a ruling in Kosovo's favour would lead more countries to recognise its independence, while an adverse opinion could push it into negotiating a settlement with Serbia.
Kosovo's independence has been recognised by 63 countries, 22 of them European Union member states, but it will need many more before it can become a full U.N. member state.
The court is due to hold nine days of hearings and to give its non-binding but influential opinion in several months. (Editing by Tim Pearce) ((email@example.com; +31 20 504 5001; Reuters Messaging: firstname.lastname@example.org))