PRISTINA, Serbia and Montenegro, Aug 31 (Reuters) - Kosovo's President Ibrahim Rugova was reported to be seriously ill on Wednesday, raising concern about a possible succession ahead of talks on independence for the disputed province.
"He is in very serious condition," a senior foreign diplomat told Reuters in the Kosovo capital Pristina, without specifying the nature of Rugova's ailment. Rugova has been in a U.S. military hospital in Germany for the past four days.
Commenting on speculation that he may return home partly incapacitated, the diplomat said: "Let's see what effect medical treatment might have on his condition."
A pacifist who has championed his people's independence aspirations for the past 15 years, Rugova was flown to the U.S. hospital at Landstuhl on Saturday.
After three days of tabloid speculation, the respected daily Zeri quoted sources on Wednesday as saying he would return by the weekend but continue "rigorous medical treatment".
As president, and a powerful figurehead for the province's 2 million ethnic Albanians, Rugova was expected to take the lead role in steering Kosovo's bitter political rivals into talks.
That now looks doubtful.
The charismatic Rugova, 60, also has no obvious successor in his faction-ridden Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK).
Analysts raised the prospect of an LDK power struggle as United Nations-mediated talks with Serbia draw near on the future of its southern U.N.-run province.
That would probably benefit rival parties which emerged from the 1998-99 guerrilla war to challenge LDK dominance.
A U.N. envoy is due to recommend in September whether to launch the talks, probably in October, or delay them.
Rugova hopes to lead Kosovo's 2 million ethnic Albanians to full independence in 2006, seven years after NATO bombing forced the pullout of Serb forces.
Political analyst Baton Haxhiu said that, health permitting, Rugova might stay on as president for the sake of political stability, but cut back considerably on his public role.
"This would be to preserve political cohesion," he told Reuters. "The international community needs calm right now."
Aides said at the weekend that Rugova's health had deteriorated after a bout of flu. They and a Landstuhl official declined to comment on Wednesday.
Kosovo became a de facto U.N. protectorate in 1999 after NATO bombing forced the withdrawal of Serb troops accused of atrocities in a year of combating an insurgency by Albanian separatist guerrillas.
Despite being eclipsed by the rebels, Rugova's popularity rebounded and he has twice been elected president since the war ended six years ago.
The LDK has relied heavily on his personal charisma to maintain a majority share of the vote among Kosovo's ethnic Albanians, but is riven by factionalism.
Rugova took a political gamble in late 2004 when he formed a coalition government with former guerrilla commander Ramush Haradinaj, who became prime minister.
Haradinaj was under investigation at the time by the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague. Once indicted he turned himself in March and the balance of power swung to Rugova.
If he was no longer at the helm of the LDK, the scales could tip once more in favour of Haradinaj's allies and those of another former rebel, Rugova's political nemesis Hashim Thaci.