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THE PATH TO PEACE

Kosovo Leader Returns Home Briefly

Balkans: Rugova's quick, mysterious visit highlights strangeness of political situation.

July 16, 1999|VALERIE REITMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia — Ibrahim Rugova, considered by his party to be president of Kosovo, puzzled observers by returning to the province from exile in Italy for a few hours Thursday, only to turn around and leave again.

The hasty exit left many wondering about Rugova's intentions, and whether he feared for his safety or realized there may be little place for him in the government being built in Kosovo by the United Nations. The U.N. recognizes Rugova as a party leader but not as president.

Rugova's quick visit highlighted how strange the political scene has become in Kosovo, a province of Serbia, the chief Yugoslav republic. The rebel Kosovo Liberation Army has established a separate "provisional government" of 16 ministers and has named its leader, Hashim Thaci, as prime minister.

Meanwhile, U.N. spokesman Kevin Kennedy said there "is no recognized government" in Kosovo beyond the United Nations, which has been administering the province since peacekeepers moved in last month after the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's 11-week air campaign against Yugoslavia.

The prospect of a diminished role in the new government could have frustrated Rugova. He traveled directly to the United Nations' headquarters in Pristina in a chauffeured car. He was greeted in the provincial capital by a few hundred cheering residents before meeting with top U.N. officials.

Among the officials who met with Rugova was Bernard Kouchner, newly appointed as U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's permanent representative in Kosovo. Kouchner, a French physician and activist who co-founded Doctors Without Borders, arrived Thursday to assume his role as virtual governor of the province.

At 7:30 p.m., Rugova and his wife briefly returned to their Pristina home. While she remained in the car, he went into the house, rushing out after a few minutes and departing without smiling.

Officials of his Democratic League of Kosovo said Rugova planned to return to Pristina next week, but they wouldn't say why he was leaving or where he was going. Party Vice President Edita Tahiri also vowed that Rugova would return next week to "restart work as president of Kosovo."

Once beloved by many ethnic Albanians as Kosovo's Gandhi for his advocacy of creating a separate Kosovo state by peaceful means, Rugova was overwhelmingly elected president in an unofficial election in 1992.

The next election, held last year amid fighting between Yugoslav troops and ethnic Albanian guerrillas, was challenged within Kosovo by other parties that said it was not proper to hold the vote during a war. Rugova was the only candidate in the 1998 election.

In any case, Rugova's government was outlawed by the Yugoslav government and had no power. But Rugova's star began to fade later in 1998 as fighting continued between the Yugoslavs and the KLA--and many of Kosovo's ethnic Albanians started to favor tougher resistance.

After NATO began bombing Yugoslavia on March 24, police seized Rugova's house and held the family inside for a few days before sending him to Belgrade, the Yugoslav and Serbian capital, to meet with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. A statement issued by the Milosevic government said Rugova condemned the bombings.

Rugova and his family left Kosovo in May. His return Thursday came after most of about 1 million refugees who fled the fighting had come back.

Now, some in Kosovo view Rugova as a traitor.

"Maybe Milosevic has invited him to Belgrade--he is his friend," Arsim Ilazi, 28, said when told of Rugova's quick departure.

The KLA's provisional administration has offered Rugova a position as one of two deputy prime ministers, said Mehmet Hajrizi, a deputy prime minister. But KLA members also aren't thrilled about Rugova's absence.

"About 90% of the people who formed this [KLA] government were in Kosovo during the bombing," Hajrizi said.

Arianit Shehu in Pristina and Times staff writer John J. Goldman at the United Nations contributed to this report.

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