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June 26, 2017

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Kosovo snap vote tests EU efforts in Balkans

PRISTINA, Kosovo--Former rebel leader Hashim Thaci claimed a third term as prime minister of Kosovo on Sunday after official preliminary results gave him the lead in a snap parliamentary election that also saw minority Serbs casting votes for the 120-seat assembly despite their rejection of Kosovo's claim to statehood.

Official preliminary results gave Thaci's Democratic Party of Kosovo a lead of three percentage points over the opposition Democratic League of Kosovo with over 70 percent of the ballots counted. The hardline ethnic Albanian Self-determination movement was in third place, it's best showing ever in a general election.

The vote was seen as important for European Union efforts toward stabilizing the Balkan flashpoint 15 years after its independence war from Serbia.

Sunday's election was called after parliament became deadlocked over key issues, including formation of Kosovo's armed forces.

Just over 43 percent of Kosovo's 1.7 million voters cast ballots, state election authorities said after polls closed.

"Tomorrow morning we continue with our work," Thaci told supporters gathered in the capital Pristina. "Tomorrow we follow the will of the people that was expressed today."

Thaci's strong showing comes despite allegations of government corruption, botched privatization deals and high-profile cases against his top aides suspected by European Union prosecutors in Kosovo of committing war crimes.

Minority Serb participation in the vote was vital for EU-brokered talks to help Kosovo normalize its ties with Serbia.

Hundreds of Serbs cast ballots, but turnout in Serb-held areas was still lower than the overall turnout. No incidents were reported, unlike during the previous two elections.

"I want to believe in what the government of Serbia is doing," 39-year-old Lazar Peric said after casting his ballot in the northern town of Zvecan.

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