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Montenegro Voting On Independence From Serbia

Pro-independence billboard reading 'Yes' in Podgorica, (epa) May 21, 2006 -- Independent monitors watching today's referendum vote in Montenegro say well over half of voters have already cast their ballots, making the poll valid.

The State Election Commission said that by midafternoon, more than 62 per cent of the electorate of 485,000 had cast their ballots. The commision described this as the highest turnout since Montenegro began to stage democratic elections in the 1990s. Spokesman Frantishek Lipka said that the referendum was proceding properly, without major problems.

Deciding Montenegro's Future

Residents are being asked to decide whether Montenegro should become an independent country or stay in a union with Serbia.

The leader of Montenegro's opposition Socialist People's Party and the Bloc for Union with Serbia, Predrag Bulatovic, expressed confidence that the union would be preserved. "I'm convinced that the will of the people will to preserve the union between Serbia and Montenegro, that the referendum will not succeed and that Montenegro will not accomplish its independence," he said.

For Montenegro to become an independent state, the referendum must meet two criteria. First, at least half of the 485,000 eligible voters must take part, and second, at least 55 percent of them have to vote in favor of independence.

Initial turnout was reported to be heavy, with more than 35 percent of voters casting their ballots in the first three hours of voting. Jorgen Grunnet, the head in Montenegro of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), said he expects validation.

"Indications are that participation will be very high," he said. "As you know, a requirement is that at least 50 percent of all registered voters must cast their vote to make the referendum valid. I think we will get well over the 50 percent".

About a third of Montenegro's population of some 650,000 are ethnic Serbs, who are expected to vote "no." Minorities such as Bosnian Muslims and Albanians are likely to vote "yes," largely due to distrust of Serbia for the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s.

International Election Observers Present

Richard Chambers, a member of the OSCE observation team, told Reuters news agency that the organization has sent many election monitors to the republic.

"What we have been doing is a long-term observation of the referendum process in Montenegro," he said. "That means that we've had teams of observers throughout the country for the last six weeks. This will now be complemented by the large number of observers who would come in for the referendum day so will be looking at it from both, a long-term and a short-term perspective. On the day itself, there will be about 340 observers connected to the OSCE delegation that includes over 100 members of parliament from different countries."

On the whole, the republic's referendum commission said 3,400 foreign and national observers would monitor the voting.

Polls are due to close at 9 p.m. local time. Results are not expected until May 22.

(Kosovo Subunit of RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service, with agency reports)

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