Despite the violent crackdown in recent weeks by Serb police, Kosovo Albanians defiantly pushed ahead Sunday with their quest for independence from Serbia by electing a new government.
Waving flags and throwing flowers, about 1,000 supporters cheered Ibrahim Rugova, the only presidential candidate, when he voted on the outskirts of Pristina, Kosovo's capital.The elections came three weeks after a Serb crackdown aimed at Albanian militants. The Serbs killed about 80 people and fanned foreign anger and fears of a new Balkan war. Albanians outnumber Serbs by 9-to-1 in the southern province in Serbia, the larger of the two republics in the Yugoslav federation.
Serb officials said the elections were unofficial and meaningless and therefore saw no need to stop them. However, the Albanians' election commission reported one instance of Serb interference involving three Serb policemen who closed a village polling station, 25 miles east of Pristina.
A boycott by seven ethnic Albanian opposition parties did not seem to affect turnout, which the election commission reported was brisk, despite freezing temperatures and snow flurries. In some places, 80 percent of voters had cast ballots before noon.
Thirteen parties loyal to Rugova were running for the 130-seat parliament.
But Washington and other countries are threatening sanctions against Yugoslavia if it does not stop repression in Kosovo.
Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic stripped Kosovo of autonomy in 1989 and since then Albanians have suffered mass firings, arrests and harassment from the army and police. More than 400 people have been killed in Kosovo in clashes or attacks claimed by the clandestine Kosovo Liberation Army.
Milosevic insists Serbia can solve its own problems and has resisted outside intervention. Authorities underlined his stance this weekend, refusing entry to three members of U.S. Congress who wanted to monitor Sunday's vote, and arresting six Americans accused of violating a law requiring them to register their presence.
The six Americans have been sentenced to 10 days in jail.
The latest crackdown on Albanians came after four Serb policemen were killed Feb. 28 in the Drenica region west of Pristina.
No voting took place Sunday in that region, where survivors of the police sweep have fled villages, hiding out in the surrounding hills.
Prekaz, a village where about 50 Albanians, including women and children, were killed, was eerily quiet.