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Kosovo Serbs hold referendum on government in Pristina

Defiant ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo on Tuesday held a referendum on whether to recognise the authority of the Albanian-dominated government in Pristina. Though non-binding, the vote may hinder Serbia’s attempt to join the European Union.

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REUTERS - Ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo voted on Tuesday in a referendum on whether to recognise the government in Pristina, which they have ignored since Serbia's former province became independent in 2008.

Kosovo is 90 percent ethnic Albanian. Serbs dominate in a small swathe of the north bordering Serbia and pledge allegiance to Belgrade. They have so far resisted efforts by the Kosovo government to extend its authority there.

The result of the two-day referendum is expected on Feb. 19. The decision will have little practical impact but could further stoke ethnic tensions.

Officials in Belgrade have warned Kosovo Serbs against holding the referendum, saying it would harm talks with Pristina and Serbia's own bid to join the European Union.

"The referendum is meaningless and unconstitutional," said Borislav Stefanovic, Serbia's negotiator in talks with Pristina.

Kosovo's Interior Minister Bajram Rexhepi said: "As far as Kosovo and international institutions are concerned, this does not change anything and may only damage Serbia's hopes for EU candidacy."

Municipal councils from Kosovska Mitrovica, Leposavic, Zubin Potok and Zvecan, run by Serb nationalists, called the vote in December, after outbursts of violence earlier in 2011.

"We are defending our homes and the state of Serbia in Kosovo," said Krstimir Pantic, mayor of the Serb part of the northern town of Mitrovica.

"We do not want to be assimilated, we want to remain citizens of Serbia," said Lazar Ampovski, 26, a student, after casting his ballot.

In July, Kosovo authorities, the European Union's police mission (EULEX) and NATO peacekeepers (KFOR) tried to take over two border crossings with Serbia but local Serbs set up barricades and resisted the efforts. Dozens were wounded in weeks of clashes and one ethnic Albanian policeman was killed.

The European Union delayed a decision on granting Serbia the status of EU membership candidate in December, citing concerns over its fraught relations with Kosovo.

Serbia lost control over Kosovo in 1999 when NATO bombed to halt the killing and expulsion of ethnic Albanians in a two-year counter-insurgency war under then-President Slobodan Milosevic.

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