By Aleksandar Vasovic
MITROVICA, Kosovo (Reuters) - An election in Kosovo designed to help end years of de facto ethnic partition was marred by violence and intimidation by Serb hardliners on Sunday, undermining a fragile EU-brokered pact between the Balkan country and former master Serbia.
Two hours before polls closed in the ethnically-divided town of Mitrovica, a volatile Serb pocket of northern Kosovo, masked men burst into three schools housing polling stations on the Serb side, lobbing tear gas and smashing ballot boxes.
Participation of the north Kosovo Serbs in the Kosovo-wide council and mayoral elections is central to an agreement reached in April to integrate the 40,000-50,000 Serbs living there with the rest of Kosovo, which is majority Albanian and declared independence from Serbia in 2008.
Serbia had called on Serbs in northern Kosovo to take part for the first time, with the EU holding out the prospect of membership talks - slated to begin in January - as a reward for Belgrade's support for the process.
But on the mainly Serb side of Mitrovica, a former mining town split along ethnic lines since Kosovo's 1998-99 war, turnout was just 7 percent at 3 p.m. (9 a.m. ET), compared with 32 percent Kosovo-wide.
The low turnout and violence was a clear indication of the scale of resistance among north Kosovo Serbs to integration with the rest of Kosovo, and underlined the challenge facing the EU in implementing the April accord.
Voting in north Mitrovica was halted after the attack at around 5 p.m. (11 a.m. ET).
Election officials fled and European Union police in armored vehicles spread out through the neighborhood as helicopters flew over the town.
The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which is helping manage the election, pulled out 60 of more than 200 staff from the area.
"The election will not resume tonight or tomorrow and the question is whether it will resume at all," said Oliver Ivanovic, a candidate for mayor of north Mitrovica. He said a woman was injured when she jumped out of a window.
Those who had voted were jeered and abused by groups of Serbs, many of whom had traveled from Serbia, gathered outside polling stations and filming those who entered.
SHIFT IN SERBIAN POLICY
"These elections are an act of high treason that will ultimately cut Kosovo off from Serbia and lead to a Serb exodus from Kosovo," said 22-year-old student Negovan Todorovic. "Belgrade is betraying Kosovo for the vague prospect of ... so-called European integration."
Krstimir Pantic, a Belgrade-backed candidate for mayor in north Mitrovica, was attacked on the street by two masked men late on Friday, suffering cuts and bruises to his face.
"I am calling on people to come out and vote or we could have Albanians in power," he said on Sunday.
The municipal election is unlikely to bring about much change at the state level, but is the most tangible sign yet of the shift in official Serbian policy towards its former province. Kosovo broke away in 1999 when NATO bombed for 11 weeks to halt the killing and expulsion of Albanians by Serbian forces trying to crush an insurgency.
Belgrade retained de facto control over a small pocket of the north, where Serbs live largely beyond the reach of the Kosovo authorities. Serbia agreed to cede the foothold in April in exchange for EU accession talks that the ex-Yugoslav republic hopes will help lure investors to its struggling economy.
Besides the north, tens of thousands of Serbs live in scattered enclaves across the rest of Kosovo but are far more integrated into the new state.
Milka, a 43-year-old Serb woman who refused to give her full name, said she would not vote for fear of losing her job in a state-run company where she said the manager had threatened to fire any worker he saw voting. Others said they would not be deterred.
"I've been living here for almost 80 years and I came to vote because if we do not take part in elections, Serbs will vanish from Kosovo," said pensioner Milorad Stijovic.
(Additional reporting by Fatos Bytyci in Pristina; Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Tom Pfeiffer and Sonya Hepinstall)