CEOL - Rugova urges Kosovo independence, eyes presidency

PARIS, Dec 15, 1999 -- (Reuters) Ibrahim Rugova, moderate leader of Kosovo's ethnic Albanians, said in an interview published on Tuesday the time had come to give the province independence for the sake of peace in the Balkans.

Rugova, the main opponent to Hashim Thaci's self-proclaimed government, told the daily Le Monde he envisaged elections in the first half of 2000, adding he hoped to become president of an independent Kosovo.

"It is time today to recognize the independence of Kosovo, with the international (KFOR) presence. An open, democratic Kosovo, integrated into Europe would have a pacifying role in the entire region. For me, the sooner the better," Rugova said.

"We are in a very uncomfortable interim period which is provoking unending discussions on the interpretation of (legal) text," he said. "We have to create political, economic and social institutions. Independence would allow us to go much faster."

Six months after Serb forces were ousted from the province and peacekeepers moved in, international authorities are considering Kosovo-wide elections next year for a consultative assembly with limited powers, a half-way step towards the fully-fledged parliament wanted by the ethnic Albanian majority.

The United States has not ruled out independence as an ultimate solution. But major diplomatic powers fear, at least in the near term, that full independence could spark a new war in the volatile Balkan region.

They are also bound by a U.N. Security Council resolution declaring respect for the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia.

Rugova slammed the idea of partitioning the province, whose mixture of Albanians with Serbs, Bosnians, Turks and other minorities makes it a potential powder keg.

He said Serbs in Kosovo must start mixing and working with the Albanian majority so full integration could be achieved.

U.N. officials and local leaders have been working for months to get Kosovo politicians more involved in the administration set up after NATO bombing ended a Serb offensive.

Thaci's administration is not officially recognized as a government by the U.N. administration. His Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), an ethnic Albanian guerrilla group which fought against Serb rule in Kosovo, was formally disbanded in September.

[URL may be different next day if article is archived]