Albanians go to polls in defiance of Milosevic

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THE HUGE queue of Albanian voters was pressed tightly together all the way up the broad stairs of the Dardania primary school in Pristina; downstairs, the queue spilled out into the playground. Upstairs, they pressed against the tables, so that it was difficult for anybody to move. The Serb authorities have declared yesterday's elections in Kosovo, with its 90 per cent Albanian population, to be illegal and irrelevant. But the scenes at the Dardania primary school in Kosovo's capital showed a nonchalant defiance of President Slobodan Milosevic's will.

The presidential and parliamentary elections come at a time of considerable tension in the province, following the killing of dozens of Albanians by Serb forces in recent weeks. Serb nationalists are being bussed in from all over the country to a demonstration in Pristina today; many Albanians say they will stay off the streets, because of the fear of violence.

Ibrahim Rugova, leader of the Democratic League of Kosovo, was the only candidate for president. The Serb authorities did not crush the elections, seeking instead to ignore them - although Serb media prominently reported an alleged incident in which 100,000 ballot sheets were found to have been tampered with. Mr Rugova's name had reportedly been circled, in advance of polling day. Certainly, there was considerable scope for electoral irregularity. More remarkable, however, were the attempts to at least provide electoral supervision - including the checking of identity documents and cross-checking of voters' lists.

Several radical Albanian parties argued that the election should be postponed until they could also take place in the Drenica region, where the recent massacres took place. The heavy police presence in Drenica made voting impossible there.

However, most Albanians seemed ready to ignore the disputes between the political factions. Mr Rugova declared yesterday "a very important day for the independence and freedom of Kosovo". Voters shared a fury and despair at recent bloodshed - together with a strong belief that the independence of Kosovo is increasingly becoming inevitable.

There is also a widespread fear that war may be on the way. "We are not for war. But if it comes to war, we are ready to fight," said a 49- year-old man in the little town of Lipljan, south of Pristina. Exactly equivalent declarations can be heard on the other side.

Many Albanians have convinced themselves that the West is ready to support Kosovo's aspirations to independence. "Why did Europe close its eyes for so long?" is a much-heard phrase on the streets of Pristina. But few seem aware of the extent of continuing Western confusion on policy towards Kosovo.

Pro-government Serb newspapers yesterday gleefully quoted the German foreign minister, Klaus Kinkel, who argued that "nobody on the planet" believed an independent Kosovo was a viable prospect. Most Western politicians are wary of the knock-on effects of independence for Kosovo, with potential further instability throughout the region.