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Mayor from ruling Kosovo Albanian party takes office in tense Serb-majority area

PRISTINA (Reuters) -A mayor from Kosovo's ethnic Albanian ruling party was sworn into office in the majority Serb half of the divided town of Mitrovica on Friday a month after local elections that were boycotted by local Serbs.

Some 50,000 Serbs living in four north Kosovo municipalities shunned the vote in protest that their demands for more autonomy have not been met - another sign that a peace deal signed by Kosovo and Serbia in March is not working.

The election turnout was 3.47% and local Serbs said they would not work with the new mayors in the four municipalities - all from ethnic Albanian parties - because they do not represent them.

Serbs in the region have never accepted Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia, a decade after a guerrilla uprising against repressive Serbian rule, and still see Belgrade as their capital.

"I will work with all my team for all the citizens without any discrimination," new Mayor Erden Atiq said after the ceremony close to the main bridge over the river that divides the mainly Serb and ethnic Albanian sides of Mitrovica.

It was unclear when the new mayors of the other three municipalities would be sworn in.

'OCCUPATION'

Igor Simic, deputy head of the Serb List, the biggest Belgrade-backed Kosovo Serb party, said it had set June 1 as a deadline for Kosovo authorities to stop what he called intimidation, persecution and illegal arrests of local Serbs.

Speaking to reporters in Mitrovica, he said his party had so far managed "with almost superhuman efforts to restrain people" and prevent a flare-up of violence over Atiq's inauguration.

Petar Petkovic, head of Serbia's Office for Kosovo, said Atiq's investiture amounted to occupation by the Kosovo government. "Every occupation has an end and this one will end when Serbs decide so," he told a news conference in Belgrade.

Western countries, Kosovo's main supporters, said that although the April vote was conducted legally, the results would bring no progress because of the Serb boycott.

"There should be no actions or initiatives...that do not serve the people or that could heighten tensions," the so-called Quint group of the United States, Italy, France, Germany and Britain said in a statement.

"All parties should refrain from the use of force or actions that inflame tensions or promote conflict."

Ethnic Albanians form a more than 90% majority in Kosovo but just a small minority in the north.

The Western-backed plan verbally agreed to by the Kosovo and Serbian governments in March aimed to defuse tensions by granting local Serbs more autonomy, with the national government in Pristina retaining ultimate authority.

Serb officials in the north resigned collectively in November 2022 in protest at the Pristina government's plan to replace Serbian car number plates dating to the pre-independence era with number plates with those of Kosovo.

Local Serbs, who still receive subsidies and benefits from Belgrade, vow not to take part in any election until the implementation of a decade-old, EU-mediated accord to set up an association of semi-autonomous Serb municipalities.

(Reporting by Fatos Bytyci and Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Mark Heinrich)