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By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
PRISTINA, KOSOVO (BosNewsLife)– Less than half of Kosovo’s 1.8 million voters have dared to participate in local elections, which have been overshadowed by violence.
On the Serb-side of the ethnically divided town of Mitrovica a group of masked men broke into the main polling center.
Residents said the men threw tear gas and smashed windows and ballot boxes. The Sveti Sava school where the attack took place housed around half the Serbian polling stations in Mitrovica.
Election officials, including members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe were seen fleeing and police closed off the area.
A short time later, security forces reportedly found and removed an unexploded bomb outside a technical school in the same town.
Serbian hardliners also called for a boycott of Sunday’s ballot, threatening the few voters who visited polling stations in northern Kosovo where most Serbs live.
In general, Serbs refuse to recognize the independence of Kosovo.
Predominantly ethnic Albanian Kosovo broke away from neighboring Serbia in 2008.
The latest reported attacks were no isolated incidents.
A Serbian mayoral candidate in the northern Serbian stronghold of Mitrovica, Krstimir Pantic, was slightly injured Friday when he was attacked by two masked men.
Elsewhere Albanian candidate Bekim Birindjiku was reportedly shot and killed by a policeman in the town of Srbica, though authorities claim the incident was not politically motivated.
The tensions came as a setback for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton who oversaw a diplomatic deal aimed at easing ethnic tensions and improving ties between Serbia and Kosovo.
Ahead of the elections, the EU even pledged 15 million euros ($20 million) in aid to Kosovo’s Serbs, explained Ashton’s spokesperson, Maja Kocijanic.
“This money will go particularly to support the Serb communities in Kosovo with the focus to the north, with issues like infrastructure, public administration, environmental protection, education, employment,” she said.
The money comes on top of some 70 million euros ($94 million) dollars, in EU funding earmarked for Kosovo this year alone.
That financial support has done little to end violence and intimidation during these elections, which were seen as a test whether Kosovo and Serbia can move closer towards European Union membership.