GARENTINA KRAJA IN PRISTINA, SERBIA-MONTENEGRO
TENS of thousands of ethnic Albanians threw flowers and wept as Ibrahim Rugova's flag-draped coffin made its way to his final resting place yesterday.
The Kosovo president who embodied ethnic Albanians' quest for an independent state was laid to rest in a white marble tomb, his name engraved in gold.
Mr Rugova's family, colleagues and dignitaries gathered at the grave, some bowing, others stroking the plaque or leaning to kiss it as they paid their last respects. Some cried, others hugged each other. The president's wife, Fana, clutched the flag that draped the coffin. A 21-gun salute was fired.
Mr Rugova died on Saturday of lung cancer at the age of 61 after 16 years as the leader of Kosovo's ethnic Albanians, who want independence from Serbia.
"You fulfilled your dream, you laid the foundation for Kosovo to become a free and independent state," the head of the province's parliament, Nexhat Daci, said.
With no-one in line to take over, Kosovo's political scene has been thrown into disarray as the province prepares for talks on its final status. The talks have been postponed.
"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," Javier Solana, the EU foreign policy chief, told the crowd.
Gani Shahini, 77, from the town of Shtimje, said Mr Rugova's death was "a great loss in these moments when we need him. He has built our path and now we need to finish what he has started."
Thousands of people lined the streets of Pristina as the coffin was driven to the tomb overlooking the capital at the Martyrs' Cemetery, initially dedicated to the victims of the Second World War.
It has since become a graveyard for members of the Kosovo Liberation Army, the rebel force that fought Serb troops in Kosovo's 1998-9 war.
Mr Rugova's grave is near his official residence, where he met western leaders and insisted they recognise the tiny province of two million as a state.
His peaceful way of confronting repression came to be seen as a rarity in the Balkans and earned him the nickname "Kosovo's Gandhi".