War In Balkans - Negotiations: Moderate Kosovo leader demands independence

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The Independent Online

Ibrahim Rugova, embarrassed Nato yesterday when he said he favoured independence for the Serbian province, rather than the autonomy that the Nato allies envisage.

The comments, made after talks with Nato's secretary-general, Javier Solana, put Mr Rugova's position more in line with that of the rebels of the Kosovo Liberation Army, which advocates an independent Kosovo and only reluctantly agreed to compromise on autonomy at the ill-fated peace talks in Rambouillet.

After a 30-minute meeting with Mr Solana in Brussels, Mr Rugova said the "best thing for us is independence" but added that the "priority of all priorities is the return of the people".

Although the ethnic Albanians were not "demanding" independence for Kosovo, Mr Rugova said, they had compromised for an "intermediary phase" by signing the Rambouillet peace treaty, which the Serbs had then spurned. "It was a basis on which to work," he added, "and gives a chance to the people after a three-year period for independence or unity with another country".

The intervention illustrates the difficulties faced by the international community in adapting the Rambouillet agreement to the realities of post- conflict Kosovo, and in dealing with a fractured ethnic Albanian leadership.

In the international community, few believe that Serbs can be allowed to exercise effective control over the province if the refugees are to return. Most are far too traumatised by the forced expulsions and accompanying atrocities to go home under the eye of the Serbian police and paramilitaries

And the credibility of Mr Rugova as a potential leader of Kosovo's politically divided ethnic Albanian population remains in doubt, with others, including Hasim Thaci, the 29-year-old political leader of the KLA, seen as prominent rivals.

Although Mr Rugova was the unquestioned leader of Kosovo Albanians in the early 1990s, the advent of war and Mr Rugova's decision to remain in Pristina in virtual captivity have undermined his credibility with many Kosovars.

Since arriving in Rome on 5 May with Belgrade's permission, Mr Rugova has met political leaders in Europe's Nato capitals but has yet to visit refugee camps in Macedonia and Albania that house hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanian refugees.

Nato played down the remarks, highlighting instead Mr Rugova's support for the air campaign, which Mr Rugova said should be accelerated.

Jakup Krasniqi, a spokesman for the KLA-led interim government which was formed last month, told German newspapers recently that Mr Rugova's election as the province's president in March 1998 took place under "dubious" circumstances.

"No one in the world recognised him as president then. And outside of the KLA, all other institutions and organisations in Kosovo are pure fiction," he said.