A landmark local election in Kosovo has been marred by violence and voter intimidation in a minority Serb-dominated northern region of the majority ethnic Albanian state.
A group of masked men broke into several schools housing polling stations in the Kosovo town of Mitrovica, as voting was under way Sunday. They smashed windows and ballot boxes and tore up election materials, forcing authorities to cancel voting for the rest of the day.
Election monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe pulled out of the polling stations and left Mitrovica.
Groups of Serb nationalists also gathered outside polling stations in the town to discourage fellow Serbs from voting in Kosovo’s elections for mayors and local councilors. The nationalists had campaigned for a boycott, with some saying that voting would be an act of treason.
Many of the 40,000 ethnic Serbs living in northern Kosovo have refused to recognize the ethnic Albanian majority’s 2008 secession from Serbia. Voter turnout in Mitrovica was only seven percent by early afternoon, compared to 32 percent for Kosovo as a whole.
The government of neighboring Serbia had encouraged Kosovo’s Serbs to vote in the election, marking a significant softening of its position toward the former Serbian territory, whose independence it still refuses to recognize.
Some Mitrovica Serbs who defied the boycott said they were voting out of concern that failing to participate would jeopardize the survival of the region’s Serb community.
Serbia agreed to support the Kosovo election in April as part of an EU-mediated deal between the two neighbors. The deal offered both sides the prospect of talks on joining the EU if the local vote went smoothly and drew a significant turnout of Serbs in northern Kosovo.
Both Serbia and Kosovo are seeking EU membership to boost their struggling economies.
Kosovo declared independence in 2008, a decade after it split from Serbia. The split triggered a bloody year-long conflict between Serbian and Albanian forces.