PRISTINA/PRAGUE -- Vote counting has begun in Kosovo's first elections since the territory declared independence from Serbia nearly two years ago, RFE/RL's Balkan Service reported.
But officials were already grappling with apparent irregularities in the landmark voting, even as they boasted of the fairness of the process.
"Today is a historic day for Kosova, as these are the first local elections since independence," Kosovo President Fatmir Sejdiu said in Pristina. "I wish for this day to be concluded in a good spirit, in the same way as it was during the campaign. We have seen a fair competition among candidates. I would like to see this day as a celebration and hope for a massive participation from Kosovar voters."
Kosovar authorities had vowed that the elections would be free and fair, and that both ethnic Albanians -- who make up a majority of Kosovo's roughly 1.8 million people -- and minority Serbs who wanted to vote would have the chance.
But there were no polling stations in many northern areas, including Mitrovice, where ethnic Serbs predominate.
RFE/RL's bureau chief in Pristina, Arbana Vidishiqi, reported that election authorities initially gave no official reason for the lack of polling stations in the north but simply cited "technical difficulties."
It was unclear how Kosovar authorities expected to overcome such a significant setback in their effort to convince international supporters and skeptics that the vote was legitimate.
At an evening press conference, Kosovo's Central Election Commission put the official turnout figure at 45.36 percent.
"Kosovo needs to pass this democratic test in front of the international community...to demonstrate that it's capable of organizing elections, managing them, and accepting their results," Ramush Tahiri, a Pristina-based analyst, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service.
Tahiri called the process "extremely important" for the country's future.
"These elections are the first to be organized based on Kosovar institutions in every respect," Tahiri said. He added that the voting was expected to kick off "a decentralization process of local governance" and lead to the creation of new municipalities.
More than 1.5 million people in Kosovo were eligible to vote.
But most of the Kosovar Serbs in the affected areas oppose Pristina's assertion of sovereignty and were expected to follow Belgrade's calls to boycott the polls. Some of the other members of Kosovo's 120,000-strong ethnic Serbian community were expected to take part in the voting.
Voters are filling local councils and mayors' seats in 36 municipalities, including the capital Pristina, from among 74 parties and coalitions.
Authorities said they had put more than 5,000 police officers on duty to increase security for the polls.
Some 13,000 NATO peacekeepers are stationed in Kosovo and, according to commanders, were ready to react at short notice if needed.
After the end of 1998-99 war, Kosovo was run by a UN mission until the territory declared its independence from Serbia in February 2008.
Serbia, backed by Russia, has rejected Kosovo's independence.
Sixty-three countries, including the United States and many European Union members, have recognized Kosovo's statehood.
Many have suggested that that Kosovo's success in organizing legitimate elections would increase the chance that more countries recognize Kosovar independence.
Kosovar Albanian Kastriot Zhubi, a Pristina resident, said he had "high hopes" about the election and its effect on Kosovo's future.
"Local elections are decisive for democracy and for progress of this nation after the independence," Zhubi said. "They should be honest and democratic. May those who have projects of general development win."
Others, like Agim Burjani said they didn't believe the elections would bring any change: "I have no hopes. It has been 10 years now [since the end of the war] and things are not moving as they should."
written by Farangis Najibullah and Andy Heil based on contributions from RFE/RL's Balkan Service and additional wire reporting