Kosovo's ethnic Albanians mourn the death of their pro-independence president Ibrahim Rugova

Thousands of ethnic Albanians lit candles, placed flowers and flew flags at half mast Sunday 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 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 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 will hold a commemorative session Sunday. 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 U.N.-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 February.

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, the AP reported.

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.

A.M.