Key local elections, overseen by more than 28,000 election monitors, have opened in Kosovo.

Polling stations opened their doors at 7am (06:00GMT) on Sunday and were expected to close 12 hours later.

More than 1.7 million people are eligible to vote in the polls that are being closely watched by the European Union which brokered a landmark deal in April between the Kosovo leadership and Serbia to improve their relations.

The deal with Kosovo had helped Serbia secure the green light to begin EU membership talks with Brussels.

The polls are the first in which Serbs are taking part after Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008. Serbia does not recognise Kosovo.

Voters are electing mayors and councillors for 36 municipalities on a four-year mandate.

More than 5,000 police officers have been deployed across the country to ensure smooth running of the voting process.

Serb voters crucial

Kosovo's minority Serbs who have so far rejected Pristina's authority and make up the majority in the north of Kosovo will be vital for the success of the polls.

About 120,000 Serbs live in Kosovo, but the 40,000 living in the north, which has maintained a certain control of institutions, are torn over whether to vote in the elections.

Hardline nationalist Serbs have actively campaigned against the vote, calling for a boycott.

Belgrade has strongly backed the polls, with Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic, Prime Minister Ivica Dacic and powerful Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic issuing a joint appeal to the voters to cast their ballots.

"Only a high turnout will secure the Serbs' survival in Kosovo... Every other result is a defeat," they said in a joint statement.

Vucic visited Kosovo on Friday to make a final appeal to ethnic Serbs to go to the polls. "Vote for your own good," he told a rally in the Serb-populated enclave of Gracanica, near the capital, Pristina.

Early voter turnout  suggests low turnout from the Serb community in northern Kosovo. Turnout in northern Mitrovica, where there has been a boycott campaign by sections of the Serb community, stands at 2.9 per cent.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton called the elections "a key moment in Kosovo's future and an important element in the process of normalisation of relations between Kosovo and Serbia".

Al Jazeera's Selma Milovanovic contributed to this report

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies