Switzerland says it is deeply saddened by the death of Kosovan President Ibrahim Rugova from lung cancer.This content was published on January 21, 2006 - 18:30
Rugova – whose dream of independence from Serbia and Montenegro was strongly supported by Switzerland – died days before international negotiations on Kosovo's final status were due to start.
The United Nations-led talks were to focus on resolving once and for all whether the breakaway province, 90 per cent of which is populated by ethnic Albanians, should win independence.
The negotiations have been put on ice until February in response to the news of Rugova's demise.
He died on Saturday in his Pristina home, surrounded by family and doctors.
Swiss President Moritz Leuenberger praised Rugova's commitment to finding a solution to the Kosovan conflict.
The Swiss foreign ministry told swissinfo that it hoped that the leader's premature death at 61 would not hinder the process of stabilising the region.
"It was due largely to Rugova that certain conditions were put in place that allowed the opening of negotiations under UN supervision on Kosovo's future status," said spokesman Jean-Philippe Jeannerat.
Bern said that Rugova was a "great figure in the history of the western Balkans" and a moderate leader.
Jeannerat also emphasised the importance of Swiss ties with Kosovo, referring to the 200,000 Kosovans who are resident in Switzerland.
"Nearly one in ten Kosovans lives among us, the majority for a number of years now. In this context, Switzerland cannot be indifferent to the evolution of Kosovo and the western Balkans," he added.
Switzerland has long supported the province's call for independence from the republic of Serbia and Montenegro, believing that continuing with the status quo would destabilise the region.
The Swiss government maintains 220 peacekeeping troops known as Swisscoy in the area to provide support to a multinational Nato contingent.
Last August Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey ruffled more than a few international feathers during a visit to the province by announcing that reintegrating Kosovo into Serbia and Montenegro was neither desirable nor realistic.
At the time, she faced criticism that she had compromised Swiss neutrality by making such a statement.
Rugova announced in September 2005 that he was suffering from lung cancer, the result of being a long-time chain smoker.
He was regarded as an international icon of the Kosovo-Albanian struggle for independence, which has lasted for decades.
He became Kosovo's first elected president in 2002, after former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic stripped the province of its autonomy in 1989.
This led Rugova to found and lead the political party, the Democratic League of Kosovo.
Rugova, a Sorbonne-educated literature professor, was sometimes referred to as the "Gandhi of the Balkans" - a reference to the perceived similarity between his and the Indian leader's long campaign for freedom from foreign rule.
Rugova's death comes at a sensitive time for the province, given the proximity of negotiations on its final status and the lack of an obvious successor.
swissinfo, Faryal Mirza
The talks - postponed until February and organised by the United Nations - were set to determine the final status of the breakaway province of Kosovo.
The province is currently part of the republic of Serbia and Montenegro but has been administered by the UN since 1999 after Nato bombing drove out Serbian forces allegedly behind atrocities committed on Albanian civilians during a separatist war.
Belgrade is against Kosovan independence.