Exit polls shows moderate leader ahead in Kosovo election

Saturday, November 17th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia (AP) _ Voters chose a moderate leader but also gave a boost to a party headed by a former ethnic Albanian rebel chief in Kosovo's first elections since NATO and the United Nations pushed out Serbian forces, exit polls showed Sunday.

While official results from Saturday's election were to be released Monday, a respected non-governmental organization monitoring the vote, Kosovo Action for Civic Initiatives, said its exit polls showed Ibrahim Rugova's Democratic League of Kosovo took 44.7 percent.

Though the margin would give Rugova the upper hand in forming a government, the lead is not wide enough to allow his party to rule without forming a coalition.

The party of former ethnic Albanian rebel leader Hashim Thaci, the Democratic Party of Kosovo, finished second with 23.7 percent, far greater than Rugova's forces expected.

The Alliance for the Future of Kosovo finished third with 8.3 percent of the vote, Kosovo Action said. A handful of smaller parties got the remainder, including 10.1 percent that went to a coalition of Serb parties.

The province's top U.N. and NATO officials praised the violence-free election and said turnout was good in Serb enclaves.

Whether or not the Serbs would vote had been in doubt until the final hours, when crowds suddenly decided to race to the polls just before they closed. It was not clear what prompted the last-minute rush.

Ethnic Albanians see the vote as nothing short of a step toward independence _ a concept that frightened some minority Serbs into staying home, fearing the election would further dilute the influence of the central government in Belgrade.

Rugova did little to dispel that view, saying the peaceful vote and the progress the province had made in the last two years suggested that Kosovo was ready to be forever free from Belgrade.

``Kosovars do deserve independence,'' he said. Kosovo is a province of Serbia, the main Yugoslav republic.

Voters elected a 120-seat national assembly that in turn will choose a president and form a provincial administration. The administrators will govern alongside the U.N. officials and NATO-led peacekeepers who have led the province since 1999, when the Western bombing campaign drove out forces loyal to then-Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic.

Turnout was 65 percent for ethnic Albanians and 46 percent for Serbs living in Kosovo, said the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which was monitoring the election. About 800,000 people went to the polls, the OSCE said.

In Serbia and Montenegro, home to about 200,000 Kosovo Serbs who fled after the war, turnout was 57 percent, the OSCE said.

International officials and Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica had tried hard to persuade Serbs to take part. Some local Serb factions were opposed to the ballot, and some Serb residents said they had received threatening phone calls and letters urging a boycott.

Dozens of Serbs have been killed by ethnic Albanians as revenge for Milosevic's crackdown, which killed at least 10,000 people, most of them ethnic Albanians.

Tens of thousands of people have fled the province since the forces loyal to Milosevic were ousted after 78 days of NATO airstrikes.