A former rebel leader who has promised to declare Kosovo's independence if mediation efforts fail declared victory for his party in a parliamentary election Saturday.
With most votes counted, opposition leader Hashim Thaci's Democratic Party of Kosovo led with 35 percent, according an unofficial tally by Democracy in Action, a coalition of monitoring groups. The Democratic League of Kosovo, traditionally the province's largest political bloc, trailed with 22 percent. Official results were expected Monday.
Thaci declared victory before hundreds of cheering supporters shortly after midnight.
"Tonight the clock has turned. A new century has begun," Thaci said. "Kosovo is ready to go forward on the road that will lead us closer to Kosovo independence."
After casting his ballot earlier, Thaci told The Associated Press that if he became 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.
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.
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 Democratic League of 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, boycotted the vote, obeying calls from Serbia's leadership. 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."
The United States criticized the Serb boycott.
"The United States deeply regrets the decision of Kosovo Serbs, encouraged by the government of Serbia, not to participate in these elections. Kosovo's Serb community can only be disadvantaged by this decision," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. ( AP )