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Violence and low turnout mar Kosovo election

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(KOSOVSKA MITROVICA) - Outbreaks of violence and a low turnout marred key local elections in Kosovo on Sunday, the first in which ethnic Serbs have been encouraged to vote since the territory proclaimed independence in 2008.

One woman was seriously injured when masked extremists stormed a polling station, attacking voters and election commissioners and destroying ballot boxes in the ethnically divided town of Kosovska Mitrovica, Belgrade-backed Serb mayoral candidate Krstimir Pantic told reporters.

Polling stations in the Serb-run northern part of the town closed an hour before the official close of voting at 1800 GMT as a result of the violence.

There were also outbreaks of violence at several other polling stations, another candidate Oliver Ivanovic said.

"The vote was interrupted by violence... it is clear that the elections in northern Kosovska Mitrovica have failed and probably will be declared invalid," Ivanovic said.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which had a key role in organising the polls in northern Kosovo, said it was withdrawing its staff from the town.

"The security of our staff was compromised and we decided to remove all our staff," spokesman Nikola Gaon told AFP in Pristina.

The election of deputies and mayors in 36 Kosovo municipalities is being watched closely by Brussels as a test of relations between Pristina and Belgrade after a historic EU-brokered deal in April to normalise ties.

Serbia rejects Kosovo's independence, but has openly backed the polls, urging the minority Serb community in the breakaway province to vote and have their say in Pristina-run institutions.

The participation of Serb voters is seen as crucial to the poll's success. There are some 120,000 ethnic Serbs living in Kosovo, some 40,000 of whom live in the north, where they make up the majority and enjoy control over some public institutions.

Many Serbs have expressed concern that voting in the election would give legitimacy to the Kosovo government.

Serb hardliners in the north have actively campaigned for a boycott of the polls and there were reports of voter intimidation.

"Some groups are not allowing voters to cast their ballots," said Valdete Daka of Kosovo's central election commission.

One supporter of the boycott, Igor Vojinovic, said refusing to vote was "the only way to save the Serb state" in northern Kosovo.

"These elections serve only to implement the Brussels accord, which is a betrayal of the Serb people," Vojinovic told AFP.

But Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic warned that "all calls for boycott and threats are endangering the Serbs' survival in Kosovo."

"Their fate must be in their own hands, not in the hands of... extremist right-wingers who are pushing the Serbs into a catastrophe" Dacic told state agency Tanjug.

'Homeless and hopeless'

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

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

The April deal with Pristina helped Serbia secure the green light to begin membership talks with Brussels, and holding up its end of the accord is vital for Belgrade.

For Kosovo, a free and fair vote with a significant Serb turnout would be a positive step in its own push for negotiations on an EU membership bid. Kosovo's independence is recognised by most EU states.

Despite Belgrade's vocal support for the polls, the boycott campaign seemed to have had an effect -- the election commission said turnout among Serb voters in the north was only around 13 percent.

But one voter, Dragica Cerovic, who is in her late fifties, said she had cast her vote "in the hope things will improve" for Serbs in Kosovo.

"We are like the Palestinians, homeless and hopeless... I am not afraid to vote and it is a shame that our Albanian neighbours are not the problem, but rather the Serbs that have threatened us," she said.

For Kosovo's Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, the elections will be a test of public support for improving relations with Belgrade.

Thaci has come under fire from the opposition over the negotiations with Belgrade but his Democratic Party of Kosovo is nevertheless expected to win most of the ethnic Albanians' votes.

Some 1.7 million people across the territory are eligible to vote. Preliminary results are expected on Wednesday.


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