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Kosovo Serbs mostly boycott elections

Vote troubles may further postpone independence talks

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A Kosovo Albanian woman holds her ballot before voting in the general election in Pristina. The vote is a major test in efforts to reconcile bitterly divided ethnic communities.

A Kosovo Albanian woman holds her ballot before voting in the general election in Pristina. The vote is a major test in efforts to reconcile bitterly divided ethnic communities.

Visar Kryeziu, Associated Press

PRISTINA, Serbia-Montenegro — Kosovo's beleaguered Serb minority largely boycotted general elections Saturday, dealing a blow to international efforts to create multiethnic harmony in the province.

The Albanian majority, however, eagerly cast ballots it hoped would bring the former Yugoslav territory closer to independence, but the lopsided turnout could further delay talks on Kosovo's future.

Kosovo's ethnic Albanians want independence, while Kosovo Serbs and Belgrade want the province to remain part of Serbia-Montenegro, the successor to Yugoslavia.

The election is Kosovo's second since it came under U.N. and NATO rule in 1999, when a NATO air war ended former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's crackdown on independence-minded ethnic Albanians. The 1998-99 war killed an estimated 10,000 people, mainly ethnic Albanians. No major election-related violence was reported Saturday.

Ultimate power remains with the U.N. mission. But about 1.3 million voters in Kosovo and some 108,000 Kosovo Serbs living in Serbia after fleeing the conflict were eligible to elect representatives to a 120-seat assembly, which will choose a president and a government that holds limited authority. Ten assembly seats are reserved for the Serb minority.

Preliminary results from Saturday's vote were expected Monday, and final results a week later.

Few Serbs voted, with the rest staying away as part of a boycott called by local Serb leaders who say the United Nations and NATO have failed to create an environment where Serbs can live free without fear.

Seven months ago, mobs of ethnic Albanians attacked Serbs and their property in riots that killed 19 people and injured more than 900 others. The violence was the worst since the Kosovo war.

The polls closed Saturday night after 13 hours of voting. Overall turnout was about 53 percent, the election commission said. It did not provide a separate figure for Serb turnout.

"We are disappointed that our efforts to have an all-inclusive election have not been rewarded," said Pascal Fieschi, the local head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation, which supervised the polls.

Kosovo's top U.N. administrator, Soeren Jessen-Petersen, said he thought Serb turnout would have been higher "if the rights of people to vote had not been hijacked by some of their so-called leaders."

Serb leader and boycott organizer Milan Ivanovic said his plan had succeeded and estimated Serb turnout at 0.3 percent.

"The Serbs understand that these are not our elections and that they are not in our interest," said Ivanovic, who described the election as a vote for "ethnic Albanian institutions of violence and repression against the Serbs."

He and other Serb leaders in the town of Zvecan, north of Pristina, attended a church service instead of voting, while Serbs in Gracanica, just east of Pristina, lit candles instead of going to the polling stations.

One of the few who cast ballots in the mostly Serb city of Kosovska Mitrovica, was Oliver Ivanovic, a Serb pro-election leader who said that those "who had the courage to take our own destiny into our hands are the moral victors today."

But Petar Milic, 62, who had to flee his home during the March violence, did not vote: "I have no one to vote for. No one is helping us," he said during an interview in the school gymnasium he now calls home.

In the rest of Serbia, where Serbs displaced from Kosovo could vote, only a handful of ballots were cast. In the central Serbian town of Jagodina, some 100 Kosovo Serbs blocked access to a polling station.

In Kosovo's capital Pristina, however, ethnic Albanian voters waited in lines at some polling stations.

"Kosovo is heading for elections that will move us closer to European Union and NATO, and especially toward independence, our main goal," engineer Vehbi Pllana, 57, said after voting.

Kosovo's president, Ibrahim Rugova, called the vote "a great and important day for the formal recognition of Kosovo's independence."

Lawmakers elected Saturday are likely to lead the province toward talks to determine Kosovo's final status. Those talks are expected to begin mid-2005.

Contributing: Jovana Gec.