One million Kosovans in funeral tribute to hero of independence

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The Independent Online

Almost half the population of Kosovo turned out to bid farewell to Ibrahim Rugova, the province's first president, who was buried yesterday to the sound of a 21-gun salute.

The man who initiated Kosovo's quest for independence 16 years ago through peaceful resistance to Serbia's repressive regime, united ethnic Albanians once again as almost a million people braved freezing temperaures to watch his coffin being carried through Pristina.

His remains were laid to rest at the place where heroes of the guerrilla movement, who began the armed rebellion against Serbia in 1998, are buried.

The hastily prepared final resting place for Mr Rugova had been planted with 61 pine trees for each of his years. He died of lung cancer on Saturday.

Unusually for the Balkans, Mr Rugova's funeral was held without any religious rites. Organisers said it was due to the "national and state character" of the ceremony at the "martyr's graveyard" memorial complex. However, many believe that Mr Rugova's rumoured conversion to Catholicism was the real reason. Such rumours have been current in Kosovo for 10 years and have never been denied. He was born into a Muslim family, but was not seen in a mosque for many years.

Contrary to Muslim tradition, his body had laid in state since Monday at the Kosovo parliament building in an open casket. It is widely believed that non-Muslim funeral rites would have deeply disturbed the almost exclusively Muslim ethnic Albanians.

Security in Pristina was tight, and police officers were deployed a metre apart from each other along the route of the cortège.

The funeral procession started its journey at 9.30am from the Kosovo parliament to a hall where speeches were made in Mr Rugova's honour by local leaders and representatives of the United Nations administration which governs the province. International dignitaries urged ethnic Albanians to remain united ahead of crucial talks with Serbia.

Mr Rugova's death has left Kosovo without a leader to enter the UN-sponsored talks on the final status of the province, due to start in Vienna next month. No politician has the charisma and background of the pioneer of Kosovo's independence and a battle for power is expected to start amongst the top leaders of the ethnic Albanians.

Javier Solana, the EU foreign policy chief, told the crowd: "It is a cruel irony of history that he left at the moment he was most needed, the very moment he was expected to provide leadership in helping to settle the future status of Kosovo."

Soren Jessen-Petersen, Kosovo's UN administrator said: "President Rugova has left a void behind him but he has also left a vision to guide Kosovo forward."

Kosovo, which officially remains a province of Serbia-Montenegro, has been administered by the United Nations since 1999 when Nato-led bombing ended a Serb crackdown on separatist ethnic Albanians.