PRISTINA, Serbia and Montenegro (Reuters) - Kosovo Albanians mourned their president, Ibrahim Rugova, on Sunday and began the search for a successor to lead the disputed Serbian province into independence negotiations.
Mourners filed past Rugova's hillside villa, where he died of lung cancer on Saturday aged 61, just days from negotiations Kosovo Albanians hope will clinch the independence Rugova championed for most of his life.
Flags hung at half-mast as the 90-percent ethnic Albanian majority contemplated a vacuum left by the two-time president, a charismatic and powerful figurehead for the past 15 years.
The head of the United Nations mission that has run Kosovo since NATO bombs drove out Serb forces in 1999 appealed for unity as direct talks with Serbia begin, postponed from next week to early February after Rugova's death.
"The aim to which he dedicated his life is that of a free Kosovo," Soren Jessen-Petersen told a commemorative session of parliament.
"It is a vision whose realisation remains in the hands of you, Kosovo's political leaders, whose unity and commitment to the president's mission will be vital in the coming months."
Rugova will be buried on Thursday, January 26 in Kosovo's capital Pristina, four months after he was diagnosed with lung cancer. His body will lie in state in parliament from Monday.
Parliament has three months to vote in a new president, but Kosovo's Western backers are keen for Rugova's Democratic League of Kosovo to overcome bitter factionalism and fill the void sooner. Analysts struggled to come up with a likely candidate.
"After Rugova begins a period of true democracy, since he left no successor," Kosovo daily Express wrote. "Now the political competition will be between equals."
Parliament speaker Nexhat Daci, a Rugova ally, was appointed acting president and is reported to want the job long-term.
Television broadcast archive footage throughout Sunday charting Rugova's rise from long-haired dissident scholar to passive resistance icon.
Legally part of Serbia, the province of 2 million people has been run by the United Nations since 1999, when NATO bombing drove out Serb forces accused of the "ethnic cleansing" of Albanian civilians in a two-year war with separatist guerrillas.
The UN Security Council gave the green light to status talks late last year, responding to growing Albanian impatience with the status quo and U.S. warnings of fresh violence.
The major powers have signalled they want a decision on status within the year. Serbia says Kosovo is the cradle of the Serb nation and can never become independent.
But the Albanian majority has ruled out a return to Serb rule after years of repression in the 1990s, when Rugova turned the other cheek while he created a virtual underground state.
His policy of peaceful resistance was eclipsed by the guerrillas in 1998, but he bounced back after the war and was twice elected president.
Diplomats say Western powers will likely override Serbian opposition and steer negotiations over the next six months towards a form of independence, under continued international supervision for years to come.
(Additional reporting by Shaban Buza)