WHO WILL BE IN CHARGE?; The retiring Lib Dem leader has the right credentials to lead in Kosovo, but his nationality could cost him the job
One candidate is an ex-Royal Marine Commando; another, the founder of a world-famous aid agency. A former rugby international waits in the wings, and there is speculation that the Finnish president may be interested. The Balkan air campaign may be over but a battle of a different sort is still raging in Europe: for the job of overseeing the reconstruction of Kosovo.

Like all contests for big international jobs, the race to become the UN special representative to Kosovo is a matter of top-level horse-trading and intrigue. At stake is a position akin to that of a colonial governor, and the contenders are not too proud to organise a little discreet lobbying on their behalf.

When Tony Blair sat down on Thursday night with the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, in the office which overlooks the Downing Street rose garden, the Prime Minister spent a sizeable chunk of the half-hour meeting pleading the cause of the British candidate, Paddy Ashdown.

For the former marine and outgoing leader of the Liberal Democrats, the job seemed tailor-made. Mr Blair has promised him an international post, and where better than in the Balkans, a region Mr Ashdown has visited regularly, both before and after the break-up of Yugoslavia? His Achilles' heel is his nationality. In most circumstances, Britain's prominence in Nato (which conducted the war) and the EU (which will pick up much of the bill for the peace) would be a help. But it is a cardinal rule of the international job circuit that positions must be spread among the nationalities, and, as a Briton is already in charge of the K-For peace implementation force in Kosovo, Mr Ashdown's chances may be scuppered.

Last Monday he passed the first hurdle when he made it on to a shortlist of three sent by Europe's foreign ministers to Mr Annan; but Gunther Verheugen, the German minister for Europe, referred directly to the question of K-For's commander, strongly implying that Britain was being greedy in pushing Mr Ashdown's case.

There was some good news for Mr Ashdown when one of his two rivals dropped out of the race on Friday. Emma Bonino, one of Italy's acting European Commissioners, had allowed her name to go forward before bowing out to concentrate on alternative job prospects. Few thought her credentials as an administrator were strong enough. "She won't get it in a million years," one diplomat said last week.

Which leaves the last of the three official EU candidates, Bernard Kouchner, France's health minister. The founder of the international aid agency Medecins sans Frontieres, Mr Kouchner combines a background in relief work with the dynamism of a front-rank politician. Married to one of France's best-known broadcasters, he is one half of a glamorous media couple.

"He is a hard-headed humanitarian fighter with a long track record and a lot of popularity," said one diplomat; the "man to beat", said another.

The wild card is Mr Annan, who may not want the EU to dictate who he appoints. As the position is officially that of "the Secretary-General's Special Representative" it is "Kofi's call", as one official put it.

Suggestions that he might plump for a candidate from a non-Nato country have fuelled speculation about Dick Spring, Ireland's former foreign minister, and even Martti Ahtisaari, Finland's president, who brokered the Kosovo peace deal with President Slobodan Milosevic.

Mr Spring, a former Irish rugby international, is playing slightly hard to get, giving the impression that he will only be a candidate only if the job is offered to him on a plate.

Likewise Mr Ahtisaari would need to be courted. Even then, some diplomats think the position would not be of sufficient stature for a former head of state, particularly one who still has several months to serve. That could bring Finland's former defence minister, Elisabeth Reth, into play.

Other names canvassed include Carl Bildt, the former Swedish prime minister, and Kai Eide, a Norwegian who runs the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

The decision is expected within days. The biggest mystery is the stampede to fill the post. The successful candidate will be based in Pristina, a dusty Balkan town before the war and one now devastated by fighting and lacking many of the most basic amenities. He or she will have the unenviable task of co-ordinating the work of an array of agencies each of which will have its own agenda. One diplomat summed up the job in one word last week: "Lousy".