Kosovo's First Elections Since Independence from Serbia Begin Smoothly

Kosovo's first elections since independence from Serbia began smoothly Sunday, with some minority Serbs ignoring a call to boycott and casting ballots alongside ethnic Albanians.

The elections for city council and mayors in 36 municipalities were seen as a key test of the fledgling state's viability following its contested February 2008 declaration of independence.

No major instances of unrest or fraud allegations were reported by Sunday afternoon, though the run-up had been marred by tensions between rival ethnic Albanian parties, as well as fears of fraud and the possibility of a boycott from the Serb minority. Stones were thrown Wednesday at Prime Minister Hashim Thaci's convoy, and there was an apparent assassination attempt Thursday on an opposition mayoral candidate.

Thaci urged minority Serbs not to boycott the vote, calling it a key test for his new nation. So far, 63 countries have recognized Kosovo, including the United States and most European countries. Serbia has vowed to block further recognition and has Russia's support.

"It's great step for Kosovo," Thaci told The Associated Press after voting in downtown Pristina in the company of his wife and 10-year-old son.

"I'm sure we will have success and appreciate very much participation of all citizen, in particular Serbs of Kosovo," he said.

More than 5,000 officers were on patrol during the vote, which was also the first organized by Kosovo officials. Previous elections were run by the United Nations, which took control of Kosovo in 1999 after NATO waged an air war to stop Serb forces' crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists.

"This is the best of democracy, and I will do my duty as a citizen," said Zoje Bujupi, an ethnic Albanian.

During the 2007 elections only 40 percent of voters cast ballots — a sharp drop from the 80 percent who took part in the first U.N.-run local poll in 2000.

Two hours before polls closed on Sunday, around 33 percent of Kosovo's 1.5 million registered voters had cast ballots, election authorities said. It was unclear how many were Serbs, but some Serbs could be seen voting in areas surrounded by majority Albanians.

Both officials from Serbia and the Serb Orthodox Church, which runs churches in Kosovo, had urged Kosovo's 100,000 Serbs not to vote.

One Serb leader running for a mayoral seat in Kosovo ignored the call to boycott and cast his ballot in the Serb enclave of Caglavica, just outside the capital Pristina.

"This vote here shows that ... the fear ... is loosening its grip," Momcilo Trajkovic said. He said the fact that Serbs were voting was a sign of better times for the minority population, which decreased by a third after the war ended in 1999 and many left to live in Serbia.

Serbia's Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic said Belgrade did not recognize elections organized by "the so-called Republic of Kosovo," but would not "retaliate" against the Serbs who take part.

"Kosovo is an integral part of Serbia, and it will always be so," Jeremic said.

In the ethnically divided town of Mitrovica, a Serbian government official based in Kosovo suggested that the fact that some Serbs were voting could signal a rift within the Serb minority — some of whom still recognize the government in Belgrade as their own.

"Today's election is are a serious challenge for the Serbian authorities here," Oliver Ivanovic told The Associated Press. "In time it will be a test of confidence in Serbia's rule. The possible serious participation of Serbs in these elections could duplicate power on the ground, and that would be very dangerous."

Some branded the Serb participation as just short of treason.

"Serbs voting in these elections, that is a catastrophe," said 53-year-old Zarko Rakocevic in Mitrovica. "They are worse than the Albanians."