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Kosovo holds key municipal elections

Kosovo is holding local elections in which ethnic Serbs will be taking part for the first time since independence in 2008 . The vote will test the country's political maturity as it seeks peace with Serbia.

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Kosovo poll tests ethnic relations

Voting began in Kosovo on Sunday where ethnic Serbs are taking part for the first time since the 2008 independence.

Kosovo, the territory which sparked a war between Serb forces and ethnic Albanian rebels in 1998-1999, remains the main obstacle to Belgrade's bid to join the European Union.

Serbia still officially rejects Kosovo's independence but has encouraged the minority Serb community, of some 120,000, to vote in the elections as part of an EU-brokered deal with Pristina to normalize their relations.

Serbia and Kosovo agreed in April to talks mediated by the EU to smooth over their differences as a condition for Belgrade to begin membership talks with Brussels.

However, hardline nationalist ethnic Serbs have actively campaigned against the vote. The nationalist opposition in Pristina is also against the vote as they reject any dialogue with Serbia until it recognizes Kosovo's independence. Four hours after polls opened at 0600 UTC, the central electoral commission reported Serb voter turnout was less than 5 percent.

Optimistic outlook

Kosovo President Atifete Jahjaga said the election will test the country's political maturity as it seeks peace with Serbia and looks ahead to eventual membership in the EU.

Jahjaga told The Associated Press on Saturday that the participation of Serbs in the election will help integrate the minority community.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton called the elections "a key moment in Kosovo's future and an important element in the process of normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia."

"The EU will be following closely the conduct of the elections," she said in a statement.

Prime Minister Hashim Thaci's Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK) is expected to win most of the ethnic Albanians' votes.

Some 1.7 million people are eligible to vote in the election for deputies and mayors of 36 Kosovo municipalities.

hc/mr (Reuters, AFP, AP)

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