Kosovo vote amid ethnic Serb boycott concerns

Guy De Launey reports form North Mitrovica, where voting was disrupted

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Polls have closed in municipal elections in Kosovo, in which ethnic Serb communities were encouraged to go to the polls for the first time.

The governments of both Serbia and Kosovo promoted a strong turnout, but correspondents say it was extremely quiet at polling stations.

And masked men forced the closure of the main polling centre in ethnically mixed north Mitrovica.

They burst into the building, letting off tear gas and smashing ballot boxes.

Election officials, including members of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), fled and police closed off the area with two hours of voting still to go.

Some Kosovar Serbs were concerned that if they voted it would legitimise the independent state of Kosovo. Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008.

The move had the support of Kosovo's majority Albanian population, but not the small Serbian minority, which refuses to recognise the country's independence.

For the first time, the government in Belgrade put pressure on Kosovo's Serb population to take part in the municipal elections.

The change was down to a new agreement between Serbia and Kosovo to normalise relations, as Serbia seeks membership of the European Union.

Masked men

Polling stations opened at 06:00 GMT and closed at 18:00 GMT.

The BBC's Guy De Launey, in Mitrovica, says the government in Belgrade has considerable influence over ethnic Serbs in north Kosovo, many of whom work in Serbian public sector jobs.

But our correspondent, who was at a polling station in north Mitrovica, says the only people going in and out appeared to be ethnic Albanians.

If there is no significant turnout among Serbs, our correspondent says, the election will have little credibility - and that would be a blow to the Serbian government, which has staked a lot on the normalisation of relations with Kosovo.

Calls for independence from ethnic Albanians in Kosovo after the break-up of the former Yugoslavia led Serbia to stage a violent crackdown in the territory, which was bought to an end by a Nato military intervention in 1999.

Until it declared independence in 2008, Kosovo was administered by the United Nations.

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