War in the Balkans: Diplomacy - Freed Rugova flies to Rome for talks

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IBRAHIM RUGOVA, Kosovo's most high-profile ethnic Albanian leader, arrived in Italy last night fuelling speculation that he might be part of a Yugoslav diplomatic move. With the permission of Belgrade, Mr Rugova went to Rome with his family for talks with the Italian Prime Minister, Massimo D'Alema, at a private villa.

Whether his arrival has any deeper significance was not clear but last night sources within Italy's foreign ministry were reported as saying that Mr Rugova had not brought with him any new proposals from the Yugoslav President, Slobodan Milosevic. Western governments believe that Mr Rugova had been under virtual house arrest in Yugoslavia, and the visit is his first abroad since the Nato air strikes began on 24 March. Mr Rugova, who led a decade-long campaign of passive resistance to Serbia's direct rule of Kosovo, has held a series of meetings recently with senior Serbian officials, purportedly to work out a political settlement, basically on Belgrade's terms.

Mr D'Alema, Lamberto Dini, Foreign Minister, and Mr Rugova strolled together outside the villa before the evening talks. "In the course of the long and cordial talks the stages of Kosovo crisis were reviewed, and the possibilities of a political-diplomatic solution for the conflict under way were examined," the Prime Minister's office said. "Ibrahim Rugova will be able to contribute as a free man [to the search for such a solution]."

Opposition politicians were pressing the premier to grant Mr Rugova Italian citizenship to enable him to pursue his peace efforts more effectively.

Italian reports said the Kosovo Albanian leader and his family flew from Belgrade on a Falcon jet on a flight plan arranged with Nato to avoid air strikes. He arrived at Rome's military Ciampino airport on what was called a "special flight" around 5pm local time.