Kosovo to repeat vote in Serb stronghold, challenging hardliners

PRISTINA Wed Nov 6, 2013 6:57am EST

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PRISTINA (Reuters) - Authorities in Kosovo said on Wednesday they would repeat a municipal election in a small ethnic Serb stronghold, paving the way for a showdown with Serb hardliners opposed to EU-backed efforts to end the country's de facto ethnic partition.

The election for Kosovo's councils and mayors on Sunday was the first to be held across the entire territory of the young country, which has a majority ethnic Albanian population, but violence disrupted voting in the northern Serbian region.

Masked men broke into polling stations on the Serb side of the ethnically-divided town of Mitrovica, lobbing tear gas and smashing ballot boxes in a violent climax to days of open intimidation of would-be voters.

Florian Dushi, a member of Kosovo's Central Election Commission, told Reuters the election in mainly Serb north Mitrovica would be annulled.

"We decided to organize a new election, but we have not decided when," he said.

The decision came as the prime ministers of Serbia and its former Kosovo province met in Brussels to discuss how to move ahead with an April accord brokered by the European Union to integrate Kosovo's Serb north following the election.

The talks between EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, Serbia's Ivica Dacic and Kosovo's Hashim Thaci covered the "next steps in the electoral process and next steps in the implementation of the April Agreement," an EU spokeswoman said.

The election participation of the Serb north, which for years has been beyond the reach of Kosovo's authorities, was central to the EU pact to integrate the region in exchange for opening talks with Serbia on membership of the 28-nation bloc.

The accord foresees the north, home to some 40,000-50,000 ethnic Serbs, living fully under Kosovo law, ending years of limbo under a form of weak control from Belgrade.

Kosovo broke away from Serbia in 1999, when NATO bombed for 11 weeks to halt the killing and expulsion of Albanian civilians by Serbian forces trying to crush a guerrilla insurgency. It declared independence from Belgrade in 2008.

The replay of the municipal election will almost certainly require a more robust security operation involving EU and Kosovo police and a NATO peace force which numbers some 6,000 soldiers.

(Additional reporting by Brussels bureau; Writing by Matt Robinson, Editing by Gareth Jones)

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