Kosovo election favourite promises independence

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PRISTINA, Serbia, Nov 17 (Reuters) Front-runner Hashim Thaci pledged independence for Kosovo today as the breakaway province voted for a new parliament ahead of a showdown with Serbia over its bid for statehood.

''These elections are not about Kosovo's status,'' the former guerrilla fighter said after casting his ballot. ''We will declare independence immediately after December 10.'' That is the date for a report by Russian, United States and European Union mediators on last-ditch talks in search of a compromise between Serbia and Kosovo's 90 per cent ethnic Albanian majority.

There is still no glimmer of a deal, with two negotiating sessions set for Brussels and Vienna in the coming week.

Kosovo's prime minister Agim Ceku, a former guerrilla commander who does not have a party of his own, is stepping down. Thaci, who leads the Democratic Party of Kosovo, is a narrow favourite to succeed him, according to opinion polls.

Kosovo's small Serb minority is boycotting the vote at the demand of the Serb government, which bitterly opposes secession.

Whichever of the four main parties wins, the 1.5 million Albanians eligible to vote are sure to elect a government ready to unilaterally declare an independent republic.

It may come within weeks of the mediators' report but is not expected to be literally on Dec 10, despite Thaci's rhetoric.

If he wins, Thaci would still have to form a coalition, possibly with the Democratic League of Kosovo of the late independence icon Ibrahim Rugova. They would hope to create a new government before the mediators hand in their report.

Even then, Kosovo has promised its Western backers in Washington and Brussels that it will coordinate its declaration with the major powers from whom it expects quick recognition.

NO HAGGLING, PLEASE In a parting admonition to Kosovo's often squabbling politicians, Ceku warned they would inflict ''serious damage'' on the historic independence process if they spent weeks haggling instead of getting the new government ready for action.

Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic was quoted yesterday as saying there could be no deal on the province's future status if Albanians insist on declaring their own state.

On the eve of the vote, a petrol bomb was thrown at the home of a Serb candidate for the Kosovo parliament, who had defied Belgrade's boycott call. Police said no one was hurt.

Serbia's ally Russia has blocked a Western-endorsed proposal for EU-supervised independence in the United Nations Security Council.

But plans for the EU mission in Kosovo are going ahead.

EU mediator Wolfgang Ischinger sees no hope of agreement on status. At talks on Tuesday in Brussels he may propose that Serbs and Albanians sign a deal that ignores the issue.

But even that has already been ruled out by Serbia.

Kosovo guerrillas took up arms in 1998 to end a decade of repression under the late Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic, whose brutal response put almost one million civilians to flight, triggering NATO intervention in 1999 and an era of UN control.

The election for the 120-seat Kosovo parliament is the third since then. The campaign was dominated by party pledges to tackle 60 per cent unemployment, minimal foreign investment and rampant corruption. The bid for statehood was never in question.

Polling stations were due to at (2330 hrs IST), with turnout prospects looking weak among an electorate that has grown suspicious of political parties and impatient for independence.

REUTERS PD BD1533

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