Thousands of ethnic Albanians lit candles, placed flowers and flew flags at half mast yesterday in memory of Kosovo president Ibrahim Rugova, who led them for nearly two decades toward their demand for independence from Serbia.
With family at his bedside, Rugova, 61, died at his official residence shortly before midday on Saturday. He had suffered from lung cancer since September, when he was first diagnosed with the illness, and went through months of treatment.
Rugova will be buried on Wednesday in Kosovo's capital, Pristina. Five days of official mourning were declared, and mourners will be allowed to pay their last respects for two days at the parliament's headquarters.
Kosovo's lawmakers were to hold a commemorative session yesterday.
"Kosovo lost the president in the final run-up to independence," read the front page of Koha Ditore daily.
"There's no greater pain for the people of Kosovo," said 40 year-old Agim Zeka, a Pristina resident. "We have lost the great man."
Others like Jusuf Sina, appealed to the rest of the leaders to continue Rugova's path.
"He worked his entire life for our state," he said.
Rugova's death left a leadership vacuum in Kosovo's fraction-ridden political scene before crucial talks on whether the province should gain the independence that was his lifelong dream.
International leaders stepped up their appeals for calm and unity in the disputed UN-run province, fearing the death could trigger instability. The Serb government expressed concerns that Rugova's successor might not share his commitment to nonviolence.
The immediate effect of his death came almost immediately. The much-anticipated start of the talks between ethnic Albanians and Serb officials had been scheduled for Wednesday in Austria, but were postponed until next month.
The flags throughout Kosovo were lowered to half mast and long lines of tearful mourners visited his hillside residence in Pristina after the announcement of his death.
Rugova had been at the forefront of demands for independence since the early 1990s, when he started leading a nonviolent movement against the policies of Slobodan Milosevic, then president of Yugoslavia.
No other Kosovo politician has been held in such high regard. He won international respect through his peaceful opposition to Serb dominance, in contrast to other Kosovo Albanians now in positions of leadership, who were part of the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army that fought Serb troops.