Kosovo MPs elect Thaci as president after day of protests

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Pristina (AFP) - Kosovo MPs elected foreign minister and former premier Hashim Thaci as president on Friday after a tense day of voting marred by protests in parliament and clashes on the streets.

Thaci won support from 71 deputies in the 120-seat parliament in the third and final round of voting, which took place after opposition MPs released tear gas in the legislature in an attempt to scupper his election.

Some opposition members were forcibly removed and banned from the vote and others refused to take part, while about 1,000 of their supporters rallied on the streets of the capital Pristina against Thaci becoming head of state.

Police fired tear gas at rioters who lobbed Molotov cocktails during the protest, which was fuelled by anger at Thaci and his colleagues for alleged corruption, around 40 percent unemployment and a disputed government deal with Serbia.

Thaci, who will be sworn in on April 7, thanked "all those in the political sphere" after his victory, which was followed by a lengthy fireworks display put on by his supporters in Pristina.

"I pledge to build a new Kosovo, a European Kosovo," the 47-year-old said.

The former political leader of the pro-independence Kosovo Liberation Army, which fought Serbia in the late 1990s, Thaci has been accused of involvement in organised crime and organ trafficking during and after the war -- charges he strongly denies.

He has recently taken a lead role in talks brokered by the European Union to improve relations between former foes Kosovo and Serbia, which are a key requirement for both sides to become EU members.

- 'Counterfeit elections' -

Kosovo, whose 1.8 million people are mostly Muslim and ethnic Albanian, declared independence from Serbia eight years ago but Belgrade refuses to recognise its sovereignty.

Kosovo's opposition MPs are furious over a government deal with Serbia to create an association giving greater powers to Kosovo's Serb minority -- a move they fear will increase the influence of Belgrade.

They have almost paralysed the work of parliament with regular tear gas demonstrations since October, and they vowed late Friday to keep up their protests calling for the government to resign.

"The counterfeit elections that we witnessed in parliament today only increase the need for us to fight a regime that is becoming more authoritarian," said Visar Ymeri, leader of the opposition Self-Determination party.

Thaci pledged that as president he would push on with talks with Serbia and also deepen ties with the United States, Kosovo's staunch ally since NATO's 1999 bombing campaign against Serbia to end the conflict.

Thaci failed to secure the required support of two-thirds of all MPs in the first two rounds of voting, but the third round required just a simple majority.

The only other candidate was Thaci's close party associate Rafet Rama, who won no votes in the final round from the 81 MPs who took part. Ten ballot papers were disqualified.

- 'Find a solution' -

Hundreds of protesters had pitched tents in the centre of Pristina earlier this week, pledging to demonstrate around the clock in an attempt to oust the government and prevent Thaci's election.

"It would be a disaster for Kosovo if he is in power for another five years," said Agron Mustafa, a 29-year-old unemployed lawyer, saying Thaci "did nothing" to improve the economy as prime minister from 2008 to 2014.

The government and international observers, including the US ambassador to Kosovo, have repeatedly denounced the opposition's tear gas protests.

"We call on all politicians who want what's good for Kosovo to sit down and find a solution," said Samuel Zbogar, head of the EU's Office in Kosovo.

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