Partition fear as Serbs stay away from Kosovo polls

A Serb boycott of Kosovo's general election increased tension between ethnic communities yesterday, raising the prospect that ethnic Albanian leaders may declare unilateral independence if the United Nations fails to define the future status of the troubled Balkan province.

A Serb boycott of Kosovo's general election increased tension between ethnic communities yesterday, raising the prospect that ethnic Albanian leaders may declare unilateral independence if the United Nations fails to define the future status of the troubled Balkan province.

Ibrahim Rugova, Kosovo's pacifist President, yesterday claimed victory in Saturday's contest. He vowed he quickly would take the province into independence from Serbia after estimates by independent observers showed that his Democratic League of Kosovo garnered 47 per cent of the vote.

Mr Rugova's main rival, the Democratic Party of Kosovo, took 27 per cent and the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo was third with 8 per cent while the new Ora party won 6 per cent. But hardline Serb leaders were jubilant that only 0.3 per cent of the Serb minority of 80,000 people had cast ballots, responding to appeals to spurn the election on the ground that their participation would give legitimacy to the Kosovo assembly's drive to achieve independence soon after talks on the status of the UN-administered province begin in mid-2005.

Under the electoral rules the Serb community will receive 10 seats in Kosovo's 120-seat parliament. But the low turnout casts doubt on the legitimacy of those representatives. Western diplomats say the Serbian Prime Minister, Vojislav Kostunica, is sure to argue the boycott amounts to support for the Serbian government's plan for the decentralisation of Kosovo. But Dushka Anastasijevic of the European Stability Initiative says the plan is a disguised proposal intended to divide the territory, with Serbia grabbing Kosovo north of the River Ibar.

The polls passed off without any major clashes but Serbs complained of death threats by nationalist thugs to keep them away from polling stations.

Kosovo's chief UN administrator, Soren Jessen-Petersen, blamed intimidation for the boycott. The UN has to find a framework in which the minority Serbs run their affairs without fear of attack from ethnic Albanians.

Mr Rugova yesterday dismissed the importance of the Serb electoral boycott, saying it would make no difference to the scramble for independence.

Western diplomats consider Mr Jessen-Petersen the ablest of the six UN "viceroys".

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