msnbc.com news services
updated 11/18/2007 1:01:55 AM ET 2007-11-18T06:01:55

Former rebel fighter Hashim Thaci claimed victory in Kosovo’s third postwar parliamentary election on Saturday, making him the man likely to lead the breakaway province to independence from Serbia.

“With our victory today begins the new century,” Thaci told cheering supporters, six hours after polls closed. Partial results pointed to a 12 percent margin of victory, but well short of a parliamentary majority.

“We showed that Kosovo is ready to move forward towards freedom and independence,” said Thaci, whose Democratic Party of Kosovo, PDK, was formed from the Liberation Army which rebelled against Serbia in 1998.

With roughly two-thirds of the votes counted, Thaci’s party was leading with 35 percent, according to the Democracy in Action coalition of monitoring groups. The League of Democratic Kosovo, traditionally the province’s largest political bloc, was trailing with 22 percent. Official results were expected Monday.

Thaci, who had been favored in recent polls as a likely winner, told The Associated Press shortly after he cast his vote that if he becomes Kosovo’s prime minister he would declare independence from Serbia after Dec. 10.

The date is when international envoys must report back to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on efforts to resolve the dispute over Kosovo’s future status.

“Immediately after Dec. 10, Kosovo’s institutions will declare the independence of Kosovo,” said Thaci, 39, a former rebel leader.

Ethnic Albanians, who make up 90 percent of Kosovo’s 2 million people, insist on independence, but Serbia has said it would never recognize a Kosovar state.

Two years of negotiations between Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian leaders and the Serbian government over the province’s status have made little progress.

Warnings form Serbia
The latest effort is being mediated by representatives from the United States, Russia and the European Union.

Decisions on Kosovo’s status are made through a forum of top ethnic Albanian leaders, who include the province’s prime minister as well as opposition politicians. However, any declaration of independence has to be formally endorsed by the province’s parliament.

Some of Kosovo’s leaders have recently sought to move back from promises for an immediate declaration of independence if no deal is reached by the deadline. Instead, they are saying Kosovo will wait until after the mediators’ report is delivered before considering when a declaration of independence might be made.

Serbia has warned that unilateral moves that curb its formal sovereignty over the province — such as declaring independence — would endanger the region’s stability.

Voters lined up in low temperatures outside polling stations Saturday in the third vote for the legislature since the province came under U.N. and NATO control in 1999, after the last in a string of wars that shattered Yugoslavia.

‘Voting for a safer future’
Ethnic Albanians have watched with increasing skepticism as their leaders have failed to achieve independence from Serbia. The economy, meanwhile, is in shambles, jobs are scarce and power outages are plentiful.

“I’m voting for a safer future, but I’m not expecting miracles” said Dea Mula, an ethnic Albanian student. “I’d like to see independence declared, although I can’t be sure when that might happen.”

About 1.5 million people are eligible to elect a new provincial parliament; the party that gets the most seats in the 120-member legislature will form a government and name a prime minister. Voters also chose local councils and municipal mayors.

If official results confirm the observers’ tally, it will be the first time the League of Democratic Kosovo will have lost an election.

However, Thaci’s party will not have won enough support to form a government on its own, meaning it will have to negotiate with other parties to assemble a coalition administration.

Kosovo’s dwindling Serb minority, as in past elections, was expected to boycott the vote, obeying calls from Serbia’s leadership to shun the poll. Some Serb voters in ethnic Albanian-dominated areas turned up at polling stations, election observers said.

Slavisa Mojsilovic summed up the prevailing mood of Serbs in Kosovo.

“I’m not interested in these elections. These are not the elections of our state of Serbia,” Mojsilovic said. “We belong in Serbia and when they call for elections, then we will vote.”

Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this story.

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