A Western official in the provincial capital of Pristina confirmed that Rugova died on Saturday.

Rugova, who came to embody ethnic Albanians' struggle for independence from Serbia, was officially diagnosed with lung cancer last September.

 

The president, who had a cult status among some ethnic Albanians, had been a chain-smoker until he was diagnosed with the illness.

 

Rugova had been at the forefront of ethnic Albanian demand for independence from Serbia since the early 1990s, when he started leading a non-violent movement against the policies of Slobodan Milosevic, then president of Yugoslavia.

 

Sensitive time

 

His death comes at a sensitive time for the province, which is about to start negotiations on whether it becomes independent or remains part of Serbia.

 

The ethnic Albanian majority want full independence, but Serbs want Kosovo to remain part of Serbia-Montenegro, the union that replaced Yugoslavia.

 

His death will also leave the province's political scene grappling with possible succession battles.

 

No other Kosovo politician has been held in as much regard.

 

He won international respect through the peaceful nature of his opposition to Serb dominance, in contrast to other Kosovo Albanians now in leadership positions, who were part of the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army that fought Serb troops.