May 11, 2008 / 11:49 AM / 11 years ago

Defiant Serbia conducts elections in Kosovo

MITROVICA (Reuters) - Serbia underlined its rejection of Kosovo’s Western-backed independence by conducting elections in the territory on Sunday, in defiance of the United Nations and the ethnic Albanian majority there.

A Serb woman casts her vote during general elections at a polling station in southern Sernian town of Nis, some 250 km (155 miles) from Belgrade May 11, 2008. Serbs began voting on Sunday in an election that will show whether the lure of European Union membership outweighs their anger over the Western-backed secession of Kosovo. REUTERS/Stevan Lazarevic

NATO troops manned checkpoints around dozens of Serb enclaves, where voting in Serbian parliamentary and local elections went ahead three months after Kosovo Albanians declared independence from Serbia.

U.N. officials and Western diplomats say the local polls are in line with Serbia’s bid to strengthen its grip on Serb areas of Kosovo, particularly the Serb-dominated north centered on the flashpoint town of Mitrovica.

“Every vote represents a vote to stay in Serbia,” said Zoran Peric, a 36-year-old voter in the Serb stronghold of north Mitrovica. “Whatever the result, I will continue to feel like a citizen of Serbia.”

Serbian nationalists are mounting their strongest bid for power since late strongman Slobodan Milosevic was toppled in 2000. A nationalist-led government in Belgrade could usher in a fresh period of instability for Kosovo and further complicate Western efforts to claw back its ethnic partition.

Kosovo’s 120,000-strong Serb minority has always voted in Serbian parliamentary elections since the United Nations and NATO took control of Kosovo with the end of the 1998-99 war.

But the U.N. mission says the vote for local councils is a violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1244, in place since the end of the conflict, and its results will be annulled.

“The U.N. resolution in not a bag of mixed peanuts for you to pick the ones you like,” said a U.N. spokesman. “Either you are fully in line with the resolution, or you are not in line.”

Kosovo’s 90-percent Albanian majority declared independence with Western backing on February 17, nine years after NATO launched an air war to halt the killing and ethnic cleansing of Albanians by Serb forces trying to crush a separatist insurgency.

The United States and most of the European Union’s 27 member states have recognized the new state.

But Serb rejection of Kosovo’s secession, with Russian backing, has cast doubt on whether the EU can take over running the new state as planned by the West, particularly in the north.

Serbia’s strategy includes splitting the Kosovo police, customs and judicial system along ethnic lines, deepening the new state’s de facto ethnic partition.

Additional reporting by Fatos Bytyci; Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Giles Elgood

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