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Last Updated: Sunday, 21 May 2006, 19:55 GMT 20:55 UK
Polls close in Montenegro's vote
A Montenegrin voter casts his ballot
Montenegrins are expected to vote largely along ethnic lines
The tiny Balkan republic of Montenegro has been voting on whether to split from Serbia, in what may mark the end of the last vestige of Yugoslavia.

Montenegrins were asked if they wanted to end their loose union with Serbia, set up in 2003 to replace Yugoslavia.

The question has deeply divided the republic and opinion polls suggest neither side can expect a sweeping win. Turnout was said to have surpassed 85%.

The pro-independence bloc needs 55% of the votes cast to ensure victory.

Serbian officials and church leaders, as well as anti-independence Montenegrins, have urged voters to reject secession, invoking the strong cultural, economic and family ties between the two republics.

Sunday best

Queues formed early at polling stations, which opened at 0800 local time (0600 GMT).

MONTENEGRO'S CHOICE
Population: 670,000
Last remaining ex-Yugoslav republic tied to Serbia
Already has autonomy, uses Euro not Serbian dinar
Prime minister and many ethnic Montenegrins driving for independence
Belgrade and many ethnic Serbs are opposed

There was a steady stream of voters. One man said: "This is the most important day for Montenegro in 100 years."

The polls were due to close at 2100 (1900 GMT) and first official results are expected on Monday, though election monitors are hoping to have an accurate prediction by the end of Sunday.

Voters, some of them dressed in their Sunday best clothes, pondered the referendum question: "Do you want Montenegro to be an independent state with full international and legal legitimacy?"

The build-up to the vote had reached a climax on Saturday night, with independence supporters setting off fireworks, blaring car horns and draping the red and gold flag of Montenegro's old monarchy from their balconies.

Diaspora vote

The campaign for independence has been led by Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, who argues it will bring faster European integration and a stronger economy.

In the days running up to the vote, thousands of Montenegrins living abroad have travelled home in order to cast their ballot.

With a population of fewer than 700,000, it is these votes from the diaspora that could ultimately decide the fate of the republic, says the BBC's Nick Hawton in the capital Podgorica.

The country seems to be divided largely along ethnic lines, with ethnic Montenegrins and Albanians in the coastal west favouring independence, while the more Serbian areas near the eastern border prefer the status quo.

Supporter of union with Serbia
Opponents of independence are worried about the economy

The last time Montenegro was independent was nearly 90 years ago at the end of World War I, when it was absorbed into the newly-formed Yugoslavia.

Under a European Union-brokered deal, the independence bloc needs 55% of the vote to be successful.

One of the key questions is what happens if a majority do vote for independence but the 55% threshold is not reached, our correspondent says.

Despite the peaceful run-up to the vote, some observers have expressed fears that the result of the referendum - whatever it is - could trigger a spasm of violence.

There is a precedent for this in the Balkans, with the Bosnian war beginning on the day the country voted for independence in 1992.

But these fears were played down by Prime Minister Djukanovic, who said: "The security forces are ready, but I'm sure there won't be trouble. We have learned our history lesson."


BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
See Montenegrins rallying in Podgorica



SEE ALSO:
Montenegro split ahead of vote
19 May 06 |  Europe
Q&A: Montenegro referendum
19 May 06 |  Europe
Should Montenegro split from Serbia?
19 May 06 |  Have Your Say
Country profile: Serbia and Montenegro
16 May 06 |  Country profiles


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