Rugova was a popular and moderate leader (Keystone)
Switzerland says it is deeply saddened by the death of Kosovan President Ibrahim Rugova from lung cancer, calling him a great historical figure.
Rugova – whose dream of independence from Serbia-Montenegro was strongly supported by Switzerland – passed away days before international negotiations on Kosovo's final status were to start.
The talks – which were to be led by the United Nations – were to focus on resolving for once and for all whether the breakaway province, 90 per cent of which is populated by ethnic Albanians, should win independence from its mother republic.
The negotiations have been put on ice until February in response to the news of Rugova's demise, which occurred in his Pristina home, surrounded by family and doctors.
Swiss President Moritz Leuenberger praised Rugova's committment 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 to stabilise the region.
"It was due largely to Rugova that certain conditions were put into place that allowed the opening of negotiations under UN supervision on Kosovo's future status," spokesman Jean-Philippe Jeannerat said.
Bern said that Rugova was a "great figure in the history of the western Balkans" and a moderate leader.
Jeannerat also emphasised the ties that bound Switzerland to Kosovo, referring to the 200,000 Kosovans who are resident in the former.
"Nearly one in ten Kosovans live 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.
Micheline Calmy-Rey and Ibrahim Rugova met in Pristina in August 2005 (Keystone)
Switzerland has long supported the province's call to independence from the republic of Serbia and Montenegro, believing that continuing the status quo would destabilise the region.
It also maintains 220 peacekeeping troops known as Swisscoy in the area as part of a multinational Nato contingent.
In August last year Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey ruffled more than a few international feathers by announcing that reintegrating Kosovo into Serbia-Montenegro was neither desirable nor realistic during a visit to the area.
At the time, she faced criticism that she had compromised Swiss neutrality by making the pronouncement.
The Kosovan leader announced in September 2005 that he was suffering from lung cancer, the result of being a long-time chain-smoker.
Rugova 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.
One nickname that stuck on Rugova, a Sorbonne-educated literature professor, was the "Gandhi of the Balkans" in 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.