Kosovo assembly launches amid squabbling

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The Independent Online

Amid tight security and internal political squabbling, Kosovo's first multiethnic legislative assembly in more than a dozen years opened yesterday in an effort to bring lasting peace to the volatile Yugoslav province.

The 120­member assembly brought together deputies from the ethnic Albanian population, a majority in Kosovo, and lawmakers from other ethnic groups, including 22 Serb lawmakers.

"This is a historical day for Kosovo," Hans Haekkerup, the top United Nations administrator of the province, told the legislators, who were searched before entering the building and had to walk through a metal detector to reach the chamber.

Referring to former six­republic Yugoslavia's communist past, he said, "For the first time in history, we are now participating in the opening of a truly democratically elected assembly representing the people of Kosovo."

But what was supposed to be a solemn inaugural session was marred by a walkout staged by the second­biggest party in Kosovo after its leader, Hashim Thaci, was prevented from speaking to the session.

Haekkerup did not allow the former rebel leader to take the floor before voting for the presidency of the assembly, a panel of parliamentary leaders, as planned.

All deputies Thaci's Democratic Party of Kosovo left the assembly hall, only to return after voting was completed.

The assembly formally approved by a vote of 78­3 five members of the presidency, after Thaci's party failed to nominate two of its own representatives, saying it will do so later.

Nexhat Daci had been nominated by the largest party, the Democratic League of Kosovo, as president, or speaker, of the assembly, and, under previously agreed rules, became the chamber's president.

Ibrahim Rugova, whose moderate Democratic League of Kosovo, won the Nov. 17 elections, is seen as a favorite to become president. But his party's margin is not large enough to govern without forming a coalition. A minimum of 61 votes are needed to elect the president.

"This is a big and historic day for Kosovo," Rugova said, gratified that the multiethnic assembly is in place despite all political problems.

The assembly was scheduled to reconvene on Thursday to elect the president of Kosovo

Rugova's party holds 47 assembly seats, Thaci's is second with 26, and the Serb coalition "Povratak" (Return) is the third­strongest faction with 22 deputies.

The legislature will be the third force to govern the province alongside UN. officials and NATO­led peacekeepers, who took control of Kosovo in June 1999 after 78 days of NATO airstrikes. The alliance launched the air war to force former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to end his crackdown on ethnic Albanians.

Haekkerup, the UN administrator, reserves the right to veto any decision, and the assembly is not allowed to discuss such contentious issues as the final status of Kosovo.

All ethnic Albanian parties want Kosovo to become independent, but the Serbs insist it remain part of Yugoslavia.

After his speech, Haekkerup also read a message from UN. Secretary General Kofi Annan, which wrote "This is a day of hope but also an occasion for reflection and renewed resolve. You face the challenge of achieving efficient daily government in particularly difficult circumstances.

"At the same time, you have an important task in overcoming the legacy of the past and establishing a political culture of tolerance, mutual respect and constructive compromise," the message said.