PRISTINA Europe's chief rights and democracy watchdog warned on Thursday of a campaign of intimidation among Serbs in north Kosovo before an election central to a fragile EU-brokered accord between Serbia and its former southern province.
Sunday's Kosovo municipal election is the first to include a small Serb-populated pocket in the north, which has resisted integration since Kosovo - where 90 percent of the population is Albanian - declared independence in 2008.
The vote is vital to a landmark accord agreed in April in which Serbia gave up its de facto hold over north Kosovo, though some 50,000 minority Serbs living there are deeply suspicious of the deal and hardliners among them are calling for a boycott.
Serbia hopes for smooth passage of the vote as it eyes the start of EU accession talks in January, but the election risks being marred by a climate of fear and intimidation in the north.
"I personally continue to be concerned about uncertain security conditions on the ground and the ongoing boycott campaign in the north, which includes intimidation of candidates, voters and persons engaged in the election process," Lamberto Zannier, secretary general of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said in a statement.
The OSCE is helping stage the election in north Kosovo.
Going some way to easing tensions, a court in Kosovo has withdrawn an order for the arrest of Serbia's minister for Kosovo, Aleksandar Vulin, on charges of entering the country illegally after he visited the north.
"The decision came after the prosecutor withdrew its request for arrest," Kada Bunjaku, head of the Mitrovica Basic Court, told Reuters on Thursday. "The prosecutor proved that he (Vulin) entered legally."
Vulin stirred anger among Kosovo Albanians when he was photographed in north Kosovo in a military-style black jacket bearing the Serbian flag.
Serbia lost control over Kosovo in 1999, when NATO bombed for 11 weeks to halt the killing and expulsion of ethnic Albanians by Serbian forces trying to crush a two-year guerrilla insurgency.
Belgrade kept de facto hold over a small Serb pocket in the north but agreed to its integration with the rest of Kosovo in April, in return for the promise of EU accession talks expected to begin in January and the expected economic boost these will bring.
Vulin is now expected to visit Kosovo on Friday with deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic to encourage minority Serbs to take part in the local election.
EU Foreign Chief Catherine Ashton, who mediated the April deal, called for a strong turnout.
"This is especially true for the Kosovo Serb community," Ashton said in a statement. "I understand the concerns, particularly in the north, but participation is the best way to ensure that your voice is heard."
(Additional reporting by Justyna Pawlak in Brussels and Matt Robinson in Belgrade; Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Alison Williams)