PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — Authorities may not tally local election results in northern Kosovo after hard-line Serbs allegedly attacked a polling station there, but the country's prime minister insisted Monday the vote was valid and should stand.
It was the first time voters in all of Kosovo were choosing local leaders since the country seceded from Serbia in 2008. The vote was seen as a key test of whether ethnic Serb-majority areas in the north who have rejected the ethnic Albanian government's authority would cast ballots, but hard-liners are suspected of smashing up a polling station to intimidate fellow Serbs from voting.
Prime Minister Hashim Thaci maintained the Serb-majority areas now have "legitimate representatives," even though election authorities have not yet decided whether to count the results. Enough ethnic Serbs turned out there and elsewhere around the country to give them a voice, he said.
"Regardless of the blackmail ... or isolated acts, the citizens in the north have decided to be part of the electoral race, of the vote, part of democratic life," Thaci told reporters in the capital Pristina. He said voter turnout in the Serb-run north was 22 percent before the attack.
Serbs in the rest of Kosovo marked a record turnout in some areas with over 50 percent of voters casting ballots. A group of masked men broke windows and tore up voting materials at a polling station in the northern town of Mitrovica on Sunday, forcing the closure of the voting station and evacuation of members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which provided technical support for the vote.
Nikola Gaon the spokesman for the OSCE in Kosovo, said voting materials from three municipalities in the north have been handed over to Kosovo's electoral authorities. Ballots cast in Mitrovica north were damaged, Gaon said.
"We were not able due to the attack on the polling center to take custody and protect those materials," Gaon said. The votes from the rest of northern Kosovo are not being processed until there is a decision on what to do with the ones at the Mitrovica polling station, election officials say.
Participation of minority Serbs in the elections was a key element in an EU-brokered deal between Serbia and Kosovo that seeks to settle longstanding disputes. Serbia does not recognize Kosovo's independence.
An AP reporter witnessed Serbs crowding outside polling stations in Mitrovica to discourage fellow Serbs from voting. Posters describing participation in elections as treason had also sprung up in Serb-majority areas.
In Belgrade, Serbia's minister for Kosovo said the government is waiting to hear from election officials before taking a stance. He said Serbia will punish any of its citizens who took part in the violence.
"The election boycott has failed," said Aleksandar Vulin. "One polling station does not represent all Serbs in Kosovo." Earlier, government spokesman Milivoje Mihajlovic suggested that Serbia will urge a repeat vote in northern Kosovo, warning against recognizing the election results.
Despite the violence, analysts said Serb turnout actually appeared to be encouraging. "It may look like a failure, but the vote is a success," said Shkelzen Maliqi, a political analyst and pollster said. "Serb extremists reacted only when they saw that the process would be successful and that the boycott was failing."
For the ethnic Albanian majority, the vote tests the popularity of Thaci's governing party before next year's national elections. Maliqi said opposition Democratic League of Kosovo had narrowed the gap with the ruling Democratic Party of Kosovo. Official preliminary results indicated there will be run-offs for mayors in most of Kosovo's 39 municipalities.