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Bosnian wartime leader's son ahead in key race

SARAJEVO (Reuters) - The son of the Muslim wartime leader was ahead in Sunday’s vote to become one of Bosnia’s three presidents, and analysts said he seemed intent on working with other ethnic groups to steer the divided country’s future.

Since the last vote in 2006, mistrust has deepened between nationalist Croat, Serb and Muslim leaders, and political divisions have widened between the country’s two regions, the Muslim-Croat federation and the Serb Republic.

Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik warned of Bosnia’s possible dissolution if rival politicians could not work together. He threatened during the campaign to seek autonomy for his half of the country over the next four years.

“Either we will be able to reach a compromise and some balance or we will have to go for another option and that is to separate in peace, live next to each other and develop civilized relations,” he said after voting.

The central election commission announced that early returns from 73.8 percent of polling stations showed Bakir Izetbegovic, son of late wartime president Alija Izetbegovic, leading the race for the presidency’s Muslim seat. He is seen as more ready to work with other ethnic groups than incumbent Haris Silajdzic.

“This is the most important postwar election. We are at a crossroads and we must chose whether we want progress or to continue going recklessly into a demise,” Izetbegovic said after voting.

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Silajdzic, Bosnia’s wartime foreign and prime minister, was Dodik’s main rival and analysts said their animosity has put reforms needed for the Euro-Atlantic integration on hold.

The incumbent Bosnian Serb and Bosnian Croat presidency members were both leading in initial results for reelection.

The preliminary figure for turnout was 56.3 percent, election organizers said, in 2006 the final turnout figure was 55.3 percent.

“This is the sign of maturity and a good sign for democracy in this country,” said Valentin Inzko, the international envoy who holds protectorate powers in Bosnia. “I hope this will bring about the changes in this country, because if there are no changes the elections are not necessary.”

Analysts believe that a higher turnout means that more people will vote for moderate parties, as nationalist parties have their loyal voters.

Since the 1992-95 war that killed about 100,000 people, Bosnia has held five general elections but has lagged in political and economic reforms and remains near the back of the queue of Western Balkan nations aspiring to EU and NATO entry.

More than 3.1 million voters were eligible to cast ballots for Serb, Croat and Muslim presidency members and deputies in the central, regional and cantonal parliaments, as well as a new president and vice-president of the Serb Republic.

The country of nearly 3.9 million people in the heart of the Balkans has resources that allow it to be the region’s sole power exporter but the economy has been slowed by burdensome administration, corruption and bickering politicians.

Additional reporting by Maja Zuvela; Editing by Adam Tanner