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Father of Kosovo's Independence Movement Dies

Kosovo President Ibrahim Rugova, the father of the province's movement to gain independence from Serbia, died of lung cancer on Saturday. He was 61 years old.

A heavy smoker, Mr. Rugova was diagnosed in September, 2005 with lung cancer. He received treatment in Germany and then returned to Pristina to tell his countrymen he had no plans to step down as president.

Kosovo is the disputed province of Serbia, which has been administered by the United Nations since 1999. That was the year NATO carried out an aerial bombing campaign against what was then Yugoslavia in defense of Albanians who were being pressured by Serbian forces. After 78 days of bombing, the Serb-dominated Yugoslav government agreed to withdraw its troops from Kosovo.

Mr. Rugova was a soft-spoken academic, who first gained prominence as an author and literary critic while a professor of literature at the Albanian language University of Pristina, the provincial capital. His political career began in 1989, when Slobodan Milosevic suspended the broad autonomy Kosovo had enjoyed within the Yugoslav federation. In that same year, Mr. Rugova founded the Democratic League of Kosova, which remains the largest political party in Kosovo.

David Binder was The New York Times Balkans correspondent when he first met Mr. Rugova in the early 1990s. Mr. Rugova will be remembered, says Mr. Binder, for his single mindedness in promoting Kosovo's independence.

"He got up in the morning preaching Kosovo's independence, and he went to bed at night preaching independence for Kosovo," said David Binder. "And, probably, he dreamed of independence for Kosovo when he was asleep."

Mr. Rugova spoke about independence for Kosovo during a 2005 visit to VOA's Albanian service.

One of Mr. Rugova's trademarks was a silk scarf draped around his neck. For David Binder, the scarf was a sign of his independence.

"He cultivated the image of an intellectual from Paris, where he studied briefly," he said. "And he continued that in a place where his people-that is, the Kosovo Albanians-never wore silk scarves, or anything resembling it."

Mr. Rugova's death comes at a sensitive time in Kosovo, where negotiations on its future status - likely to be conditional independence - are under way.

Mort Abramovitz, a retired U.S. diplomat who founded the International Crisis Group, which does independent research on global issues, calls Mr. Rugova a unifying figure in Kosovo, where 90 percent of the population is ethnic Albanian.

Ridiculed by young Albanians for his opposition to the 1998 insurrection against Serbian rule, Mr. Rugova staged an electoral comeback to twice defeat political parties linked to the Kosovo Liberation Army, the militant group that took up arms against Serbia, and later entered the political fray. Mr. Abramovitz says these election victories over younger rivals are a tribute to Mr. Rugova's political skills.

"He was much better known, and had much better organization," said Mort Abramovitz. "And because the others were so divided and acted so miserably in their first six months of rule in the way they sort of provisionally took over the country."

Ibrahim Rugova, the father of the ethnic Albanian independence movement in Kosovo, is dead.