PRISTINA – Kosovo went to the polls Sunday for the first time since the ethnic Albanian majority declared independence from Serbia last year, amid a partial boycott by a divided Serbian community.
Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci said the local election "is the most important since the proclamation of independence" as he voted in bright sunshine in Pristina, accompanied by his family.
According to the electoral commission, some 45 percent of the 1.5 million eligible voters voted for mayors and local representatives in what Serbia sees as a renegade southern province. Polls closed at 7:00 pm.
Most eyes were on Kosovo's 120,000 strong Serb community amid calls from Belgrade and the influential Serbian Orthodox Church for them to boycott the polls.
However Serbs appeared to be participating in polling stations throughout central Kosovo, home to two-thirds of the Serb minority.
In the Serb stronghold Gracanica, eight kilometers (five miles) south of Pristina, there were even queues of people waiting outside some polling stations.
According to local electoral officials in Gracanica, more then 23% of 18,000 voters had voted, while in the central town of Strpce, also with a Serb-majority population, some 31% of voters cast their ballot.
"We live here and we see no other solution," 47-year-old farmer Slobodan Joksimovic told AFP, explaining why he decided to turn his back on appeals from Belgrade to boycott the polls.
"The time has come for us to decide our own fate," 25-year-old technician Dragan Ivanovic said after casting the ballot in the nearby village of Gusterica.
However, the one-third of Kosovo's Serbs, who live in the north near the Serbian border, were massively boycotting the vote. The election commission said turnout in three northern municipalities with majority Serb population was less than 1%.
Nesrin Lushta, an official with the election commission, told reporters the authorities in the north had even been prevented from opening most of the polling stations in public premises.
"We have foreseen such a situation," she said, adding that four mobile polling teams were sent from Pristina to the north "to provide conditions for voting."
The polls in Gracanica were underway as church bells began to toll to announce the death of patriarch Pavle, the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, who died in Belgrade earlier in the day.
People gathered in tears, lighting candles and paying tribute to the late patriarch who had served in Kosovo before becoming head of the church and continued to provide strong support to Serbs there later on.
Kosovo seceded from Serbia in February 2008 despite strong opposition by Belgrade, having been run by a UN mission since the end of the 1998-99 war.
The Serb community as a whole rejected the independence declaration and have kept strong links with authorities in Belgrade, receiving financial and political support from the Serbian government.
More then 60 countries, including the United States and all but five European Union members have recognised Kosovo's independence.
Urging a massive turnout, President Fatmir Sejdiu called on particularly the Serb community "to participate massively because it is a huge chance for them to be an actor of our everyday and institutional life."
"It is a special feeling to vote in your own country for the first time in your life," said 72-year-old pensioner Nexhi Arifi, an ethnic Albanian voting at a Pristina school.
The main contenders are Sejdiu's Democratic League of Kosovo (DLK) and Thaci's Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK), trailed by the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK) of former prime minister Ramush Haradinaj.
The first unofficial results are expected by midnight. A runoff will be held on December 13 in municipalities where candidates fail to win more than 50% of the vote in the first round.
The polls were being monitored by 3,000 local and international observers, including an EU mission and a European Parliament delegation.