Serbs scared away from Kosovo polls by Belgrade's terror tactics

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The Independent Online

Fewer than 1 per cent of Kosovo's Serbs will be able to take part in the province's municipal elections this autumn, after violent intimidation by Belgrade hardliners prevented them from registering to vote.

Fewer than 1 per cent of Kosovo's Serbs will be able to take part in the province's municipal elections this autumn, after violent intimidation by Belgrade hardliners prevented them from registering to vote.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), responsible for overseeing Kosovo's elections, announced yesterday at the close of the registration process that fewer than 1,000 Serbs, out of an estimated 105,000 who remain in the province, would be eligible to vote because of threats delivered by representatives of the Belgrade regime.

"Heavy-handed intimidation has been used to deny Serbs their rights," said Daan Everts, OSCE ambassador. "We did anticipate heavy-handed tactics, but we had assurances from leaders that they were against intimidation. Unfortunately, the Belgrade authorities must be held responsible for the Serb boycott."

One international official said the pressure was in the interests of Yugoslavia's President, Slobodan Milosevic. "It is in the interests of Milosevic to suppress any involvement of the Serb community in Kosovo with the democratic process."

More than a million Kosovo Albanians have registered to vote, out of an estimated 1.2 million people of all ethnicities on the electoral register.

Despite the presence of Nato and United Nations security forces at registration centres, there was still intimidation by hardline Serbs. "This kind of intimidation is very difficult to reach," said Jeff Fischer, head of the OSCE joint registration task force. "It is not something standing armies can control."

Potential Serb voters in Kosovo were threatened with a variety of measures, Mr Fischer said, including long-term persecution should they return to Serbia, arrest on espionage charges, random violence and suspension of pensions.

Mr Everts branded the registration process "a spectacular success", prompting one international official to ask: "If this is a success, what does he call a failure?" Since Nato and the United Nations entered Kosovo in June last year to end Serb oppression of the Kosovo Albanians, revenge attacks on Serbs have forced almost all of the 105,000-strong minority to live in Nato-protected enclaves.

Ethnic violence has continued between Albanians and Serbs, especially in southern Serbia's Presevo valley, where ethnic Albanian rebels clashed last weekend with Serb forces.

Albanian rebels from the Liberation Army for Presevo, Bujanovac and Medvedja, towns in southern Serbia where more than 70,000 ethnic Albanians live, have clashed frequently with Serb police and military since January, in an attempt to end perceived oppression.

Nato is concerned because much of the violence occurs in the internationally agreed five kilometre-wide strip between Kosovo and Serbia, known as the ground safety zone, where Nato forces have said repeatedly that they would intervene to prevent Serb atrocities.

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