Renewed ethnic tensions and uncertainty over final status talks overshadowed Kosovo's general election Saturday, the second in the province since the 1998-99 war between Serbian forces and ethnic Albanian separatists.
A poster encourages the people of Kosovo to vote
The vote for the 120-seat assembly is seen as a test of the international community's efforts to build a multi-ethnic democracy in the southern Serbian province, administered by the United Nations since NATO bombing forced Belgrade troops to withdraw in June 1999.
But it has been marred by calls for ethnic Serbs to boycott the vote over security fears after 19 people died when mobs from the ethnic Albanian majority rioted through Serb villages in March, the worst violence here since the war.
Some 2,000 extra NATO peacekeepers have been deployed to Kosovo to secure the election. The Kosovo force (KFOR) is already the North-Atlantic alliance's biggest mission with some 19,000 troops in the field. Kosovo police spokesman Refki Morina said police were also out in force, with all 6,000 local officers on duty "to ensure security and safety".
UN officials said no incidents had been reported in the first hours of voting and turnout was just over five percent of 1.3 million registered voters. Kosovo's chief UN administrator, Soren Jessen-Petersen, said the election marked a "turning point" and would set the stage for a UN review of democracy standards early next year and possible talks on final status.
U.N-The Head of the United Nations mission in Kosovo Soren Jessen Petersen.
He urged the province's ethnic Serb minority to participate and vowed to make their safety a top priority. "Kosovo's Serbs need legitimately elected leaders who can engage with the challenges ahead," he wrote Saturday in the International Herald Tribune. "Since ethnic Albanians rioted against minority Serbs in March, the damage has begun to be repaired and Kosovo has moved forward," Jessen-Petersen said.
Serbs stay home
But in the northern, mainly Serb town of Zvecan a lone voter had cast his ballot 90 minutes after the polls opened. Kosovo Serb leaders gathered in a nearby Orthodox church to light candles a symbol of hope.
"We haven't noticed that elections are being held today," said Milan Ivanovic, a prominent Kosovo Serb. However another Serb politician, Oliver Ivanovic, said he would encourage his supporters to vote. "It is obvious that there is no other solution, that only with our energy and powers we can take up responsibilities for our future," he said.
Ethnic Albanians demand complete independence from Serbia but ethnic Serbs and the government in Belgrade insist that the territory is an inalienable part of the former Yugoslav republic. Analysts believe a boycott will deprive the Serbs of legitimate leaders to participate in any future talks on the province's status and the future of the UN protectorate.
Kosovo President Ibrahim Rugova, an ethnic Albanian, said the vote was "a great and important date for the independence of Kosovo. I believe that all citizens will vote as these elections are important for the formal recognition of independence," he said after casting his ballot.
More than 33 political groups and 30 independent candidates are taking part in the election. The latest surveys show that no party will win enough votes to control the parliament and form a government by itself. Some 12,000 local and international observers are on hand to look for irregularities. The first unofficial results are expected this weekend.