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Residents of four Serb-majority municipalities boycott vote on removing ethnic Albanian mayors

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Residents of four Serb-majority municipalities boycott vote on removing ethnic Albanian mayors
News

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Residents of four Serb-majority municipalities boycott vote on removing ethnic Albanian mayors

2024-04-22 03:56 Last Updated At:04:00

PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — Residents of four Serb-majority municipalities on Sunday overwhelmingly boycotted a vote on removing their ethnic Albanian mayors from office following last year’s mayoral elections.

The referendum — supported by the West — was an attempt to diffuse tensions between Kosovo and neighboring Serbia as both countries vie to join the European Union. However, Kosovo's main ethnic Serb party, Srpska Lista, or Serbian List, which has close ties with Belgrade, had called for a boycott of Sunday's poll.

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A Kosovo election official carries a voting material at a polling station in the municipality building in North Mitrovica, Kosovo Sunday, April 21, 2024. Residents of four Serb-majority municipalities are casting their votes Sunday in a referendum to decide whether to remove their ethnic Albanian mayors from office following last year’s mayoral elections, overwhelmingly boycotted by the Serb minority. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)

PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — Residents of four Serb-majority municipalities on Sunday overwhelmingly boycotted a vote on removing their ethnic Albanian mayors from office following last year’s mayoral elections.

A Kosovo election official unloads a truck with ballot boxes and polling station materials in North Mitrovica, Kosovo Sunday, April 21, 2024. Residents of four Serb-majority municipalities are casting their votes Sunday in a referendum to decide whether to remove their ethnic Albanian mayors from office following last year’s mayoral elections, overwhelmingly boycotted by the Serb minority. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)

A Kosovo election official unloads a truck with ballot boxes and polling station materials in North Mitrovica, Kosovo Sunday, April 21, 2024. Residents of four Serb-majority municipalities are casting their votes Sunday in a referendum to decide whether to remove their ethnic Albanian mayors from office following last year’s mayoral elections, overwhelmingly boycotted by the Serb minority. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)

Kosovo election officials carry the ballot boxes and polling station materials in North Mitrovica, Kosovo Sunday, April 21, 2024. Residents of four Serb-majority municipalities are casting their votes Sunday in a referendum to decide whether to remove their ethnic Albanian mayors from office following last year’s mayoral elections, overwhelmingly boycotted by the Serb minority. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)

Kosovo election officials carry the ballot boxes and polling station materials in North Mitrovica, Kosovo Sunday, April 21, 2024. Residents of four Serb-majority municipalities are casting their votes Sunday in a referendum to decide whether to remove their ethnic Albanian mayors from office following last year’s mayoral elections, overwhelmingly boycotted by the Serb minority. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)

Kosovo election officials unload the ballot boxes and polling station materials in North Mitrovica, Kosovo Sunday, April 21, 2024. Residents of four Serb-majority municipalities are casting their votes Sunday in a referendum to decide whether to remove their ethnic Albanian mayors from office following last year’s mayoral elections, overwhelmingly boycotted by the Serb minority. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)

Kosovo election officials unload the ballot boxes and polling station materials in North Mitrovica, Kosovo Sunday, April 21, 2024. Residents of four Serb-majority municipalities are casting their votes Sunday in a referendum to decide whether to remove their ethnic Albanian mayors from office following last year’s mayoral elections, overwhelmingly boycotted by the Serb minority. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)

A voter is identified before he casts his vote at a polling station in North Mitrovica, Kosovo Sunday, April 21, 2024. Residents of four Serb-majority municipalities are casting their votes Sunday in a referendum to decide whether to remove their ethnic Albanian mayors from office following last year’s mayoral elections, overwhelmingly boycotted by the Serb minority. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)

A voter is identified before he casts his vote at a polling station in North Mitrovica, Kosovo Sunday, April 21, 2024. Residents of four Serb-majority municipalities are casting their votes Sunday in a referendum to decide whether to remove their ethnic Albanian mayors from office following last year’s mayoral elections, overwhelmingly boycotted by the Serb minority. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)

Only 253 out of 46,556 registered voters cast their ballots in all four municipalities. For the mayors to be ousted, a majority vote is needed. No ballots at all were cast in one of the municipalities, Zvecan, according to results after voting ended at 1700 GMT (1 p.m. EDT).

“That is why we note that the citizens’ initiative to oust the mayors of the municipalities of Leposavic, Zubin Potok, Zvecan and North Mitrovica has failed,” said Kreshnik Radoniqi, head of the Central Election Commission, which is in charge of the process.

In June, Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti offered to hold new elections in North Mitrovica, Zvecan, Leposavic and Zubin Potok if 20% of the electorate in the municipalities supported a petition for the polls. Residents voted in favor of the petition in January.

When ethnic Albanian mayors took up the offices last May, Kosovo Serbs clashed with security forces, including NATO-led KFOR peacekeepers, injuring 93 troops, while protesting the results.

Serbia has backed calls for the mayors to step down.

Local and EU observers monitored the process.

The result leaves the same tense status quo in northern Kosovo and its EU-facilitated negotiations to normalize ties with neighboring Serbia. No developments are expected in the months ahead.

Kosovo President Vjosa Osmani accused Belgrade of exerting pressure on Serbs in Kosovo to boycott the referendum.

“Once again Serbia interfered illegally in the election process of another country. Once again (Serbian President Aleksandar) Vucic has not kept his word given to international partners (not to interfere),” Osmani said.

Srpska Lista acknowledged that it wanted “to replace these fake mayors in our municipalities, but we didn’t want to play games directed by the regime in Pristina.” The party accused Kurti's government of exerting pressure on ethnic Serbs in the north with its police presence.

Kosovo was a former Serbian province until a 78-day NATO bombing campaign in 1999 ended a war between Serbian government forces and ethnic Albanian separatists in Kosovo, which left about 13,000 dead, mainly ethnic Albanians, and pushed Serbian forces out. Serbia doesn’t recognize Kosovo’s 2008 independence.

Tensions between the two countries remain high.

On Monday, Kosovo took another major step toward joining the Council of Europe — the continent’s foremost human rights body — amid Serbian opposition. The following day, Belgrade authorities stopped Kosovars trying to go home for nearly 20 hours at border checkpoints, saying it was for security reasons. Pristina accused Belgrade of “holding (Kosovars) hostage” for failing to block Kosovo's Council of Europe membership. The U.S. and EU denounced stalling free movement between the two countries.

Earlier this month, Kosovo announced its first nationwide census since 2011, which will include surveying the ethnic Serb minority in the north. The Srpska List party has denounced the census and called for a boycott, saying it was an attempt by Kurti’s government “to confirm his shameful success in expelling (some 250,000) Serbs,” in reference to the 1999 war.

Another point of contention was Pristina's recent decision to ban ethnic Serbs from using the Serbian currency, the dinar, widely used in Kosovo's Serbian-run institutions, including schools and hospitals.

The United States and the EU are struggling to get the Pristina-Belgrade dialogue “back on track.” Talks between the two have stalled after a Kosovo police officer and three Serb gunmen were killed in a shootout after about 30 masked men opened fire on a police patrol near the Kosovo village of Banjska in September.

Brussels has warned both that refusal to compromise jeopardizes Serbia and Kosovo’s chances of joining the bloc. The 27-nation bloc is keen on maintaining the alignment of the Western Balkan countries — Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Albania — with the West as Russia’s war against Ukraine continues. The six are at different stages of the accession process.

Llazar Semini reported from Tirana, Albania.

Follow Llazar Semini at https://x.com/lsemini

A Kosovo election official carries a voting material at a polling station in the municipality building in North Mitrovica, Kosovo Sunday, April 21, 2024. Residents of four Serb-majority municipalities are casting their votes Sunday in a referendum to decide whether to remove their ethnic Albanian mayors from office following last year’s mayoral elections, overwhelmingly boycotted by the Serb minority. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)

A Kosovo election official carries a voting material at a polling station in the municipality building in North Mitrovica, Kosovo Sunday, April 21, 2024. Residents of four Serb-majority municipalities are casting their votes Sunday in a referendum to decide whether to remove their ethnic Albanian mayors from office following last year’s mayoral elections, overwhelmingly boycotted by the Serb minority. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)

A Kosovo election official unloads a truck with ballot boxes and polling station materials in North Mitrovica, Kosovo Sunday, April 21, 2024. Residents of four Serb-majority municipalities are casting their votes Sunday in a referendum to decide whether to remove their ethnic Albanian mayors from office following last year’s mayoral elections, overwhelmingly boycotted by the Serb minority. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)

A Kosovo election official unloads a truck with ballot boxes and polling station materials in North Mitrovica, Kosovo Sunday, April 21, 2024. Residents of four Serb-majority municipalities are casting their votes Sunday in a referendum to decide whether to remove their ethnic Albanian mayors from office following last year’s mayoral elections, overwhelmingly boycotted by the Serb minority. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)

Kosovo election officials carry the ballot boxes and polling station materials in North Mitrovica, Kosovo Sunday, April 21, 2024. Residents of four Serb-majority municipalities are casting their votes Sunday in a referendum to decide whether to remove their ethnic Albanian mayors from office following last year’s mayoral elections, overwhelmingly boycotted by the Serb minority. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)

Kosovo election officials carry the ballot boxes and polling station materials in North Mitrovica, Kosovo Sunday, April 21, 2024. Residents of four Serb-majority municipalities are casting their votes Sunday in a referendum to decide whether to remove their ethnic Albanian mayors from office following last year’s mayoral elections, overwhelmingly boycotted by the Serb minority. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)

Kosovo election officials unload the ballot boxes and polling station materials in North Mitrovica, Kosovo Sunday, April 21, 2024. Residents of four Serb-majority municipalities are casting their votes Sunday in a referendum to decide whether to remove their ethnic Albanian mayors from office following last year’s mayoral elections, overwhelmingly boycotted by the Serb minority. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)

Kosovo election officials unload the ballot boxes and polling station materials in North Mitrovica, Kosovo Sunday, April 21, 2024. Residents of four Serb-majority municipalities are casting their votes Sunday in a referendum to decide whether to remove their ethnic Albanian mayors from office following last year’s mayoral elections, overwhelmingly boycotted by the Serb minority. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)

A voter is identified before he casts his vote at a polling station in North Mitrovica, Kosovo Sunday, April 21, 2024. Residents of four Serb-majority municipalities are casting their votes Sunday in a referendum to decide whether to remove their ethnic Albanian mayors from office following last year’s mayoral elections, overwhelmingly boycotted by the Serb minority. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)

A voter is identified before he casts his vote at a polling station in North Mitrovica, Kosovo Sunday, April 21, 2024. Residents of four Serb-majority municipalities are casting their votes Sunday in a referendum to decide whether to remove their ethnic Albanian mayors from office following last year’s mayoral elections, overwhelmingly boycotted by the Serb minority. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)

KALAMATA, Greece (AP) — Nine Egyptian men went on trial in southern Greece on Tuesday, accused of causing a shipwreck that killed hundreds of migrants and sent shockwaves through the European Union’s border protection and asylum operations.

Outside the courthouse, a small group of protesters clashed with riot police as the proceedings got underway. There were no reports of serious injuries but two people were detained.

The defendants, most in their 20s, face up to life in prison if convicted on multiple criminal charges over the sinking of the “Adriana” fishing trawler on June 14 last year off the southern coast of Greece.

International human rights groups argue that their right to a fair trial is being compromised as they face judgment before an investigation is concluded into claims that the Greek coast guard may have botched the rescue attempt.

More than 500 people are believed to have gone down with the fishing trawler, which had been traveling from Libya to Italy. Following the sinking, 104 people were rescued — mostly migrants from Syria, Pakistan and Egypt — and 82 bodies were recovered.

The protesters could be heard inside the packed courtroom as presiding judge Eftichia Kontaratou read out the names of the nine defendants.

Defense lawyer Spyros Pantazis asked the court to declare itself incompetent to try the case, arguing that the sinking occurred outside Greek territorial waters. “The court be turned into an international punisher,” Pantazis told the panel of three judges. United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres last year described the shipwreck as “horrific."

The sinking renewed pressure on European governments to protect the lives of migrants and asylum seekers trying to reach the continent, as the number of people traveling illegally across the Mediterranean continues to rise every year.

Lawyers from Greek human rights groups are representing the nine Egyptians, who deny the smuggling charges.

“There’s a real risk that these nine survivors could be found ‘guilty’ on the basis of incomplete and questionable evidence, given that the official investigation into the role of the coast guard has not yet been completed,” said Judith Sunderland, an associate director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch.

Authorities say the defendants were identified by other survivors and the indictments are based on their testimonies.

The European border protection agency Frontex says illegal border detections at EU frontiers increased for three consecutive years through 2023, reaching the highest level since the 2015-2016 migration crisis — driven largely by arrivals at the sea borders.

Police guard outside a court house in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, on Tuesday, May 21, 2024. Nine Egyptian men go on trial in southern Greece on Tuesday, accused of causing a shipwreck that killed hundreds of migrants and sent shockwaves through the European Union’s border protection and asylum operations. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Police guard outside a court house in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, on Tuesday, May 21, 2024. Nine Egyptian men go on trial in southern Greece on Tuesday, accused of causing a shipwreck that killed hundreds of migrants and sent shockwaves through the European Union’s border protection and asylum operations. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

A protester bleeds after clashes with police outside a court house in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, on Tuesday, May 21, 2024. Nine Egyptian men go on trial in southern Greece on Tuesday, accused of causing a shipwreck that killed hundreds of migrants and sent shockwaves through the European Union’s border protection and asylum operations. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

A protester bleeds after clashes with police outside a court house in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, on Tuesday, May 21, 2024. Nine Egyptian men go on trial in southern Greece on Tuesday, accused of causing a shipwreck that killed hundreds of migrants and sent shockwaves through the European Union’s border protection and asylum operations. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Police clash with protesters outside a court house in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, on Tuesday, May 21, 2024. Nine Egyptian men go on trial in southern Greece on Tuesday, accused of causing a shipwreck that killed hundreds of migrants and sent shockwaves through the European Union’s border protection and asylum operations. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Police clash with protesters outside a court house in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, on Tuesday, May 21, 2024. Nine Egyptian men go on trial in southern Greece on Tuesday, accused of causing a shipwreck that killed hundreds of migrants and sent shockwaves through the European Union’s border protection and asylum operations. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Police clash with protesters outside a court house in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, on Tuesday, May 21, 2024. Nine Egyptian men go on trial in southern Greece on Tuesday, accused of causing a shipwreck that killed hundreds of migrants and sent shockwaves through the European Union’s border protection and asylum operations. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Police clash with protesters outside a court house in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, on Tuesday, May 21, 2024. Nine Egyptian men go on trial in southern Greece on Tuesday, accused of causing a shipwreck that killed hundreds of migrants and sent shockwaves through the European Union’s border protection and asylum operations. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Two of nine Egyptian men accused of causing a shipwreck last year that killed hundreds of migrants arrive at a courthouse for the start of their trial in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, Tuesday, May 21, 2024. The defendants face up to life in prison if convicted on multiple criminal charges. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Two of nine Egyptian men accused of causing a shipwreck last year that killed hundreds of migrants arrive at a courthouse for the start of their trial in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, Tuesday, May 21, 2024. The defendants face up to life in prison if convicted on multiple criminal charges. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Two of nine Egyptian men accused of causing a shipwreck last year that killed hundreds of migrants arrive at a courthouse for the start of their trial in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, Tuesday, May 21, 2024. The defendants face up to life in prison if convicted on multiple criminal charges. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Two of nine Egyptian men accused of causing a shipwreck last year that killed hundreds of migrants arrive at a courthouse for the start of their trial in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, Tuesday, May 21, 2024. The defendants face up to life in prison if convicted on multiple criminal charges. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Two of nine Egyptian men accused of causing a shipwreck last year that killed hundreds of migrants arrive at a courthouse for the start of their trial in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, Tuesday, May 21, 2024. The defendants face up to life in prison if convicted on multiple criminal charges. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Two of nine Egyptian men accused of causing a shipwreck last year that killed hundreds of migrants arrive at a courthouse for the start of their trial in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, Tuesday, May 21, 2024. The defendants face up to life in prison if convicted on multiple criminal charges. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

One of nine Egyptian men accused of causing a shipwreck that killed hundreds of migrants waves as he is led by police to a courthouse in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, Tuesday, May 21, 2024. The defendants face up to life in prison if convicted on multiple criminal charges. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

One of nine Egyptian men accused of causing a shipwreck that killed hundreds of migrants waves as he is led by police to a courthouse in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, Tuesday, May 21, 2024. The defendants face up to life in prison if convicted on multiple criminal charges. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

One of nine Egyptian men accused of causing a shipwreck last year that killed hundreds of migrants waves as he is led by police to a courthouse in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, Tuesday, May 21, 2024. The defendants face up to life in prison if convicted on multiple criminal charges. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

One of nine Egyptian men accused of causing a shipwreck last year that killed hundreds of migrants waves as he is led by police to a courthouse in Kalamata, southwestern Greece, Tuesday, May 21, 2024. The defendants face up to life in prison if convicted on multiple criminal charges. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

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