NEWS AND ANALYSIS - COUNTDOWN TO INDEPENDENCE
By GARENTINA KRAJA Associated Press Writer 460 words 22 October 200408:08 pmAssociated Press NewswiresEnglish(c) 2004. The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. PRISTINA, Serbia-Montenegro (AP) - Voters in the U.N.-run province of Kosovo were to cast ballots Saturday in a major test for international officials' efforts to reconcile bitterly divided ethnic communities and establish a multiethnic society.About 1.3 million voters are eligible to elect representatives to a 120-seat assembly, which in turn will elect a president and a government that holds limited authority. Ultimate power remains with the U.N. mission.Security during the poll will be watched over by some 20,000 NATO-led peacekeepers and about 10,000 police officers deployed throughout Kosovo to ensure that no one interferes with the voting. The Serb minority has threatened a boycott, citing a lack of security.Kosovo's 1,622 polling stations open at 7 a.m. (0500GMT) Saturday and close at 8 p.m. (1800GMT). Preliminary results are expected on Monday and final results a week later.Saturday's vote is Kosovo's first to be organized by local election bodies and will be monitored by about 13,000 observers.The vote will be Kosovo's second general election since it came under U.N. and NATO rule in 1999, when a NATO air war ended former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's crackdown against independence-minded ethnic Albanians. The 1998-99 war killed an estimated 10,000 people, mainly ethnic Albanians.Kosovo formally remains part of Serbia-Montenegro, but its final status is to be decided through negotiations expected to begin next year.Under an internationally agreed strategy, negotiations could begin on Kosovo's final status if progress is achieved by mid-2005 in areas such as the rule of law and minority protection.Ethnic Albanians, who make up 90 percent of Kosovo's 2 million, generally back candidates who have promised to make Kosovo independent. Most of the 100,000 Serbs living here, and Belgrade, want the province to remain part of Serbia-Montenegro, the successor to Yugoslavia.Local Serb leaders and top Belgrade politicians are split over Serb participation in Saturday's elections, and there were fears that the boycott might be held as threatened.The election comes seven months after Kosovo's worst outbreak of ethnic violence since the war. Mobs of ethnic Albanians in mid-March attacked Serbs and their property in riots that killed 19 people and injured more than 900 others.Thirty-three political parties, initiatives and independent candidates are running for the ballot. Ten of the seats in the assembly are set aside for the Serb minority, but they can win more seats if they take part in the poll in bigger numbers. Another 10 seats are reserved for other Kosovo minorities.
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