Friday, February 10, 2006

Kosovo elects moderate president

Feb. 10 - Kosovo elected political moderate Sejdiu as its new president, in time for face-to-face talks between ethnic Albanians and Serbia on the future of the disputed province.

The 54-year-old,Fatmir Sejdiu, replaces Albanian independence icon Ibrahim Rugova, who died of lung cancer on January 21.

The 120-seat parliament voted 80 to 12 to elect Sejdiu, a longtime Rugova ally and senior member of his Democratic League of Kosovo.

The vote clears the way for direct Serb-Albanian talks on the fate of the Serbian province, which has been run by the United Nations since NATO bombs drove out Serb forces in 1999.

Postponed following the death of Rugova, the meeting is due to be held in Vienna on February 20.

Sejdiu, a mild-mannered law professor, received a standing ovation as the vote passed.

He promised the assembly he would lead the negotioan "as president Rugova created it", and hoped to finidh the process within 2006.

But many on the streets of Belgrade said they didn't even know who the new elected president of Kosovo is, though they assumed he would play a prominent role in upcoming talks.

"I can't tell you (what I think) since I don't even know who has been elected, but it will surely have influence on the talks," said local resident Milan Knezevic.

Legally part of Serbia, the province of 2 million people has been run by the United Nations since 1999, when 78 days of NATO bombing drove out Serb forces accused of atrocities against Albanian civilians in a two-year war with separatist guerrillas.

Ninety percent of the population of Kosovo are ethnic Albanians pushing for independence, something Serbia says is unthinkable.

The two sides are due to come together this month for the first time since the United Nations launched a process late last year to end almost seven years of economic and political limbo.

Western diplomats were keen for Kosovo's Albanian leaders to quickly fill the vacuum left by Rugova, who championed the drive for independence for 16 years.

They feared a messy power-struggle could disrupt the negotiations, seen almost certainly heading for a form of independence for Kosovo under continued international supervision.

Analysts say Sejdiu's quiet, reserved manner won over his peers in government, as well as opposition.

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