July 15, 1999
PRISTINA, Kosovo (CNN) -- Ethnic Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova returned to a hero's welcome in Kosovo on Thursday, promising that a democratic, pluralistic society will rise from the ashes of brutal ethnic strife.
"I am very happy today in free Kosovo, in free land to build democracy, economic life and social life -- to work for democracy and independence," he said.
Albanians lined the road from the Macedonian border to the provincial capital to greet the man they twice elected their unofficial president, indicating he still has a loyal following in the province.
Rugova, a pacifist, offered a message of reconciliation to the province's Serb minority, many of whom have fled Kosovo in fear of reprisals from returning ethnic Albanian refugees.
"We are also not in favor of seeing any other ethnic group moving out of Kosovo," Rugova told a news conference in Pristina. "We will try to see that conditions are created for the return of all of them, as for instance Serbs and other ethnic groups.
"This is a deeply held position of all Kosovo citizens, and property will be safeguarded," he said.
Upon his return, Rugova must rebuild his Democratic League of Kosovo amid a challenge from the rival Kosovo Liberation Army. He faces a serious challenge from the KLA's Hashim Thaci, who has staked his claim as the ethnic Albanians' sole leader and set up a provisional government.
The KLA's uprising against Serb authorities eventually sparked the 11-week NATO air war against Yugoslavia, and its battles with Yugoslav troops during the war made them heroes to many Albanians.
Rugova was under house arrest in Pristina at the start of the war, then left Yugoslavia for Italy. Wartime photographs showing him shaking Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's hand -- and conciliatory statements, which Rugova has said were made under duress -- eroded his authority.
But he said Thursday he will work with the KLA leadership to rebuild the country's political infrastructure.
"We will cooperate between ourselves and the international community. That is the solution for the moment," he said.
Rugova's return to Kosovo was only temporary. By day's end, he had left for Rome, vowing to return soon with his family.
The NATO-led peacekeepers and the U.N. civilian administration overseeing Kosovo see Rugova as a figure who could galvanize political reconstruction.
"The absence of an important political leader such as Dr. Rugova obviously poses problems, because we lack an important interlocutor," U.N. mission chief Sergio Vieira de Mello said.
Peacekeepers also hope Rugova return will temper many Kosovo Albanians' desire for vengeance over the killings and expulsions during the war.
Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians fled Kosovo during the Yugoslav army's offensive against Albanian separatists -- a campaign that NATO said became a war of "ethnic cleansing" throughout the province.
The presence of 32,000 NATO-led peacekeepers has not been enough to stop attacks against Serbs and Gypsies, or Roma, accused of collaborating with Yugoslav forces.
Scores of attacks have been reported since NATO forces arrived June 12. Many people have been forced from their homes, which often have been burned in their wake.
"Killings, kidnappings, forced expulsions, house burnings and looting are daily occurrences. These are criminal acts," de Mello said. "They cannot be excused by the suffering that has been inflicted in the past. Kosovo's future must be built on justice, not vengeance."
The U.N. refugee agency said both the KFOR peacekeepers and the KLA "expressed concern" about reported criminal activity in the southwestern Djakovica area by "well-armed Albanian gangs in KLA uniforms." It said KFOR troops have found nine bodies in the region over the last 10 days.
Correspondent Nic Robertson andReuters contributed to this report.
Kosovo awaits Rugova's return from wartime exile
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