Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians mourn the death of their pro-independence president
PRISTINA, Serbia-Montenegro – Kosovo lawmakers, some crying, observed a minute of silence Sunday in memory of late President Ibrahim Rugova and pledged to pursue his lifelong dream of independence from Serbia.Throughout the province, flags flew at half-staff and ethnic Albanians mourning their leader’s death placed flowers and formed long lines to pay condolences at Rugova’s official residence.The 61-year-old ethnic Albanian leader died Saturday from lung cancer. He was diagnosed with the disease in September. While he was undergoing treatment, Rugova continued regular meetings with Western politicians, insisting on recognition of the province’s independence even as he struggled at times to catch his breath.His death occurred just days before talks were to begin on the final status of the U.N.-administered province and left Kosovo’s political scene in disarray. The talks have been delayed until February.”Kosovo is proud to have had Ibrahim Rugova,” Nexhat Daci, the head of Kosovo’s assembly, told lawmakers in parliament, which was adorned with a large photograph of Rugova bearing a black ribbon and placed over a large bouquet of flowers.”Kosovo is certain of its future because it has his legacy,” Daci said, his voice shaking.Daci likely will take up the duties of the president until a new leader is elected by lawmakers.Rugova’s death comes as the restive province of 2 million embarks on a delicate process of negotiating a solution that ethnic Albanians – a 90 percent-plus majority – hope will end in full independence. The Serb minority in Kosovo and in Serbia insist the province they view as the cradle of their culture remain part of Serbia-Montenegro, the union that replaced what remained of Yugoslavia.Kosovo has been run by the United Nations since NATO launched a bombing campaign to end a Serb crackdown on ethnic Albanian rebel separatists in 1999.Rugova will be buried Thursday in Kosovo’s capital, Pristina, presidential spokesman Muhamet Hamiti told The Associated Press.A 15-day mourning period was declared starting Monday, Hamiti said. Rugova’s body will lay in state at parliament, where mourners will be allowed to pay their respects for three days, starting Monday.Soren Jessen-Petersen, Kosovo’s U.N. administrator, bowed in front of the late president’s picture. He said fulfilling Rugova’s dream of an independent state is in the hands of the province’s political leaders, “whose unity and commitment to the presidents vision will be vital in the coming months.”Kosovo Prime Minister Bajram Kosumi appealed for unity in pursuing Rugova’s goal of independence.”We owe it to the man of peace and independence to create the state of Kosovo, his greatest and holy testament,” Kosumi said.International leaders also stepped up their appeals for calm and unity in the province, fearing the death could trigger leadership crisis as no other Kosovo politician is held in such high regard.”If a person who marked a political scene so significantly over many years disappears, of course it is a shock,” Jessen-Petersen said.The Serb government expressed concerns that Rugova’s successor might not share his commitment to nonviolence.Rugova won international respect through his peaceful opposition to Serb dominance, in contrast to other Kosovo Albanians now in positions of leadership, who were part of the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army that fought Serb troops.Rugova had been at the forefront of demands for independence since the early 1990s, when he started leading a nonviolent movement against the policies of Slobodan Milosevic, then-president of Yugoslavia.The effect of Rugova’s death was felt immediately. Much-anticipated start of the talks between ethnic Albanians and Serb officials that had been scheduled for Wednesday in Austria were postponed until February.”Kosovo lost the president in the final run-up to independence,” read the front page of Koha Ditore daily.”There’s no greater pain for the people of Kosovo,” said 40-year-old Agim Zeka, a Pristina resident. “We have lost the great man.”Others like Jusuf Sina appealed to the rest of the leaders to stick to Rugova’s path.”He worked his entire life for our state,” he said.