NATO, EU secure polling stations in vote re-run central to Kosovo accord

NATO, EU secure polling stations in vote re-run central to Kosovo accord
Italian Carabinieri, who are members of the NATO Kosovo Force (KFOR), stand in front of a Serbian national flag as they secure the main bridge in the northern part of the ethnically-divided town of Mitrovica, November 3, 2013. Masked men burst into the main polling centre in the Kosovo town of Mitrovica on Sunday, throwing tear gas and smashing ballot boxes during an election that the West hopes will help integrate Serbs and Albanians, witnesses said.

* Election two weeks ago halted by masked men

* Vote central to attempt to integrate Kosovo's Serb north

* Kosovo independence since 2008, not recognised by Serbia

MITROVICA, Kosovo - NATO soldiers and EU police secured polling stations in the flashpoint Kosovo town of Mitrovica on Sunday for a re-run election central to a Western-sponsored plan to end the country's ethnic partition.

Masked men lobbing tear gas halted voting in Mitrovica two weeks ago, during a municipal election held for the first time in a northern, mainly Serb pocket of majority-Albanian Kosovo.

Ethnic Serb participation is central to an EU-brokered accord between Serbia and Kosovo aimed at integrating the mainly Serb north with the rest of Kosovo, more than five years since the former Serbian province declared independence.

The EU wants to see a peaceful and orderly vote that will elect a local council that will operate under Kosovo law, an outcome that local Serbs say will result in discrimination.

For years the north has functioned in a legal limbo, part of Kosovo but de facto under the control of Serbia in defiance of Kosovo's NATO and European Union overseers.

Serbia in April agreed to recognise Kosovo's legal authority over the north in exchange for accession talks with the EU, expected to begin in January.

Some 23,000 people, the vast majority of them Serbs, are eligible to vote on Sunday in the re-run, at three locations on the mainly Serb northern side of Mitrovica, a former mining town split largely between Serbs and Albanians since Kosovo's 1998-99 war.

Voters have been subjected to weeks of open intimidation by Serb hardliners trying to thwart the election, and intense pressure from Belgrade to take part and give legitimacy to the EU accord.

"I was called on Friday night and told that, as someone on welfare, they'd be giving out sugar, oil and a bit of money sent by the state so that I would vote for the government candidate,"said Vesna Cosic, a pregnant unemployed Serb woman in north Mitrovica.

"Then they started to threaten. 'If you don't come on Sunday, we'll take you off welfare'," Cosic said. "I don't sell out for anyone, and certainly not for a few kilos of welfare."

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