Rugova returns after `a bad war'

THE CHEERING began at the airport in Macedonia, took up again at the border with Kosovo, and continued all the way along the road north to the capital Pristina. "Welcome Home Mr President!" read the banner, suspended from one bridge. "Rugo! Rugo!" chanted the children outside the big house in Pristina.

On the face of it, it was a straightforward and exultant occasion: After weeks of intimidation and exile, Ibrahim Rugova, president of Kosovo, yesterday returned home.

Within a few hours he had met up with the head of the UN Mission in Kosovo (Unmik), and was addressing the media in his front room. He began by thanking everyone, from the Pope downwards, who had contributed to Kosovo's liberation.

He promised to co-operate with international institutions. "It is important to build up on the democracy and freedom we have achieved now," he said.

Mr Rugova's return raises one of the trickiest questions hovering over Kosovo one month after the country's liberation from the Serb forces. Who exactly is in charge?

The arrival of President Rugova complicates an already crowded picture, in which a British general, and a French politician, stand alongside an Albanian "president" and two self-proclaimed prime ministers.

At first glance, President Rugova, would appear to have one of the strongest claims as the closest thing that the Albanian majority has ever had to a popularly elected leader.

He rose to prominence as a literary academic, and founded the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK) in 1990. The LDK's policy was pacifist and internationalist. His claim to be "president" derives from underground elections, held by the Albanians in the face of grave Serb oppression, but never recognised internationally.

But to many Mr Rugova is a man of the past. Chief among them is Hashim Thaqi, the most important of the claimants to the prime ministerial crown. During the Kosovo war Mr Thaqi was the effective leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army, active in the front line as well as in the meeting rooms of Albania where Kosovars gathered in exile.

Compared to Mr Thaqi, Mr Rugova had a very bad war - trapped with his family in Pristina, he was whisked away to Belgrade by the Serbs and was filmed shaking hands with Slobodan Milosevic. "That was not co-operation," he said yesterday. "It's over now."

He eventually escaped to Italy where he remained for a puzzlingly long time after the Nato liberation. In his absence, former KLA leaders, with Mr Thaqi as their head, have dominated the newly set-up Provisional Government.

But Mr Thaqi too has his challengers. Last week, a former KLA officer, Bardhyl Mahmuti, broke off to form the Party of Democratic Union.

Like many countries struggling for survival, Kosovo achieved during war a unity which may be difficult to sustain under peace.

But, with tens of thousands homeless and sporadic violence erupting between Serbs and Albanians it will be a long time before the differences in Kosovo can be settled in free and fair elections.