( Reuters ) - Kosovo was holding a parliamentary election on Saturday in which all main parties share a common goal of independence for the breakaway province, as deadlocked talks with Serbia approach a showdown.
Ethnic Albanian Prime Minister Agim Ceku, a former separatist guerrilla leader, is stepping down, and Kosovo's 6 percent Serb minority is boycotting the ballot at the demand of the Serbian government, which bitterly opposes secession.
Whoever wins, the 1.5 million Albanians eligible to vote are sure to elect a government ready to declare an independent republic. It could come within weeks of a mediators' report to the United Nations expected to say no agreement can be reached.
Ex-guerrilla commander Hashim Thaci and his opposition Democratic Party of Kosovo enjoy a narrow lead in opinion polls, but would have to share power, possibly with the Democratic League of Kosovo of late independence icon Ibrahim Rugova.
They would hope to form a new government before the mediators -- from the United States, European Union and Russia -- make their report on Dec 10, after hosting two final rounds of negotiations next week in Brussels and Vienna
Thaci told Reuters this week it was "just a matter of setting the date" for an independence declaration.
"Kosovo and Serbia could talk for another 100 years and never agree," he said.
Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic was quoted on Friday as saying there could be no deal on the province's future status if Albanians insist on declaring their own state.
On the eve of the vote, a petrol bomb was thrown at the home of a Serb candidate for the Kosovo parliament, who had defied calls by Belgrade to boycott the election. Police said there was extensive damage but no one was hurt.
Serbia's ally Russia has blocked a Western-endorsed proposal for EU-supervised independence in the United Nations Security Council. But Kosovo Albanians are counting on the United States and major EU powers to recognise the last state to be carved from the old Yugoslavia.
In Washington this week to speak to the Bush Administration, EU mediator Wolfgang Ischinger said he sees no hope of agreement on status. At talks on Tuesday in Brussels he may propose that Serbs and Albanians sign a deal that ignores the issue.
Serbia has already ruled that out.
Writing in Thursday's Wall Street Journal, Ceku said discussion of status was "a dead end".
" Serbia can't accept that independence is inevitable; we know that independence is nothing but inevitable, and can't be compromised on or delayed," he wrote.
The election for the 120-seat Kosovo parliament is the third since 1999, when NATO bombed Serbia for 11 weeks to save Kosovo Albanian civilians from a wave of ethnic cleansing in a counter-insurgency war.
Albanians took up arms in 1998 to end a decade of repression under the late Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic, whose brutal response to separatist calls put almost one million civilians to flight.
The election campaign was dominated by party pledges to tackle 60 percent unemployment, minimal foreign investment and rampant corruption. The bid for statehood was never in question.
Polling stations open at 0600 GMT and close at 1800 GMT.