Serb hardliners force early closure of Kosovo voter registration center

LEPOSAVIC, Jul 17, 2000 -- (AFP) A group of Serb hardliners forced a voter registration center in northern Kosovo to close down early on Saturday, an international observer told AFP.

Around 40 members of a Serbian self-defense group descended on the town of Leposavic following reports that its mayor, Nenad Radosavljevic, had advised his supporters to end their boycott of registration ahead of municipal elections planned for October.

The international observer, who asked not to be named, told AFP that the group had come from the nearby town of Kosovska Mitrovica to intimidate the local population and attempt to seize a list of those who had already signed up for the poll.

The group's arrival came two days after Radosavljevic, chairman of the local branch of the Serbian National Council (SNV), told a meeting of Serbian politicians and OSCE officials that he no longer favored the boycott.

Goran Lazovic, an SNV member, told AFP that Radosavljevic had been suspended from his post in the movement late Thursday, following the meeting, which was held in the southern Kosovar town of Gracanica.

On Friday Daan Everts, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) ambassador to Kosovo, cited the example set by Radosavljevic as proof that some moderate Serb leaders were ready to back the election process.

So far only a "few hundred" of Kosovo's 100,000 strong Serbian minority have signed up for the poll, according to the latest OSCE figures. Saturday was to have been the last day for all Kosovo residents to sign up, but registration stations will now stay open until Wednesday, Everts said.

But on Saturday in Leposavic the registration center shut down suddenly at 3:00 p.m. (1300 GMT) after officials were warned of the arrival of the Mitrovica group.

When a French military policeman arrived at 3:10 p.m. to oversee the closure of the office, he found its doors already locked.

Two other centers in the municipality of 18,500 people, those in the villages of Lesak and Belo Brdo, had also been advised to shut up shop, the observer told AFP.

Leposavic was tense on Saturday as members of the KFOR multinational peacekeeping force were stationed outside the Leposavic center and UN police patrolled the town.

According to the observer, most of the men who had come by car from Mitrovica were members of the "Bridge Watchers," a Serb self-defense unit loyal to Mitrovica's hardline mayor, Oliver Ivanovic.

"They were here to intimidate the population, there was no violence," the observer said.

Radosavljevic, who left Kosovo on Saturday to attend a meeting in Brussels with EU representatives and other Serbian mayors on developing democracy in Yugoslavia, was not available for comment.

The voter registration process has been a great success among Kosovo's ethnic Albanian population, according to Everts, who on Friday announced that almost one million people out of a population of 1.9 million had registered. Many of those unregistered are too young to vote, the OSCE added.

But in Leposavic, a small town high in a mountainous area near Kosovo's administrative border with the rest of Yugoslavia, most Serb leaders remain fiercely opposed to voter registration.

"We object to registration because we do not want to take part in the construction of an independent Kosovar state," said Vucko Antonijevic, chairman of the SNV in northern Kosovo, as he sat in a Leposavic pavement cafe.

Antonijevic said he had talked that morning with Radosavljevic, whose position on registration was a personal one and one not shared by the Leposavic branch of the SNV or the mayor's New Democracy party.

Additional peacekeepers are to be deployed Monday in Leposavic in order to protect the registration center when it reopens, the observer said.

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