President &to=http://english.pravda.ru/politics/2000/10/31/591.html' target=_blank>Ibrahim Rugova died of lung cancer Saturday, leaving 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. He was 61.
International leaders appealed for calm and unity in the disputed U.N.-run province, while the Serb government expressed fears that Rugova's successor might not share his commitment to nonviolence.
The much-anticipated start of the talks between ethnic Albanians and Serb officials had been scheduled for Vienna, Austria on Wednesday, but were postponed until February following the death of the man who came to embody ethnic Albanians' aspirations for independence.
Rugova died in his residence in Pristina just before midday surrounded by his family, said his spokesman, Muhamet Hamiti.
"He carried his battle with cancer with great dignity and courage until his last breath," Hamiti said.
The flag at Rugova's hillside residence in Pristina was lowered to half mast and tearful staff, bodyguards and neighbors gathered outside his home. Pristina' streets were empty, with people glued to their radios and television screens.
Rugova will be buried Wednesday and there will be a five-day mourning period, a government commission tasked with organizing his funeral said.
Rugova was often called the "Gandhi of the Balkans" in an allusion to the Indian leader's epic campaign for his nation's independence.