October 31, 2013 / 2:14 PM / 6 years ago

Kosovo withdraws warrant for Serbian minister ahead of vote

PRISTINA (Reuters) - Kosovo has withdrawn an arrest warrant for a Serbian government minister, a judge said on Thursday, easing tension before an election that is central to a fragile EU-brokered accord between the Balkan neighbors.

Sunday’s Kosovo municipal election is the first to include a small Serb-populated pocket in the north, which has resisted integration since the former Serbian province - 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 turnout on Sunday may be low.

Testing the accord, a court in Kosovo last week ordered the arrest of Serbia’s minister for Kosovo, Aleksandar Vulin, on charges of entering the country illegally after he visited the north. Kada Bunjaku, head of the Mitrovica Basic Court, said the order had been revoked.

“The decision came after the prosecutor withdrew its request for arrest,” Bunjaku told Reuters. “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 European Union accession talks expected to begin in January.

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 on Serbs to take part.

“My message to the people throughout Kosovo is: participate in the elections on Sunday,” Ashton said in a statement.

“This is especially true for the Kosovo Serb community. 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; Editing by Matt Robinson and Alison Williams

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