PRISTINA, Serbia and Montenegro, Feb 10 (Reuters) - Kosovo on Friday elected moderate Fatmir Sejdiu as its new president, clearing the way for face-to-face talks between ethnic Albanians and Serbia on the future of the disputed province.
The 54-year-old replaces Albanian independence icon Ibrahim Rugova, who died of lung cancer on Jan 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 (LDK).
Sejdiu is Kosovo's second president since the United Nations took control of the province in 1999, when NATO bombed for 78 days to drive out Serb forces accused of ethnic cleansing.
Direct Serb-Albanian talks on Kosovo's fate, postponed following the death of Rugova, are now set for Vienna on Feb. 20 -- the first such meeting in a process diplomats say could end in independence from Serbia within the year.
Sejdiu, a mild-mannered law professor, received a standing ovation as the vote passed. He promised to obtain the independence that Rugova championed for 16 years.
"I assure you I will lead the negotiating team as president Rugova created it, to finish this process as soon as possible within 2006," Sejdiu told the assembly.
He called on the province's Serbs -- a ghettoised minority that wants to remain part of Serbia -- to join them in creating a multi-ethnic, tolerant Kosovo.
TOLERANCE AND UNDERSTANDING
Kosovo's U.N. governor said it was a "good day" for the province. Sejdiu "will maintain unity and stability, and make sure we can move toward a decision on status," said Soren Jessen-Petersen.
The architect of a decade of passive resistance to Serb rule, Rugova died leaving a leadership vacuum at a critical juncture. Fearing a messy power-struggle, diplomats in Pristina lobbied hard for the LDK to fill the post so talks could begin.
Analysts say Sejdiu's quiet, reserved manner won over the LDK's various factions. "He is a man of tolerance, cooperation and understanding," LDK member Kole Berisha told parliament.
Almost seven years have passed since NATO launched its first "humanitarian" war to wrest control of Kosovo from Belgrade, whose forces were accused of atrocities against Albanian civilians in a war with separatist guerrillas.
Ninety percent of its 2 million people are ethnic Albanians impatient for independence, something Serbia says is impossible. Frustration with the status quo has fueled sporadic, sometimes explosive violence against Serbs and the U.N.
Fearful of fresh violence, the U.N. launched a process of mediation late last year led by former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari. Diplomats say Kosovo will almost certainly win independence, conditional on concessions to Serbs and acceptance of an EU-led supervisory mission for years to come.