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Friday, July 16, 1999 Published at 00:15 GMT 01:15 UK

World: Europe

Kosovo leader returns to cheers

Supporters greet Mr Rugova at the border crossing into Kosovo

Kosovo: Special Report
Ibrahim Rugova, the moderate regarded by many Kosovo Albanians as their chief political leader, has returned home to cheering crowds after an absence of two months.

He told a news conference in Pristina he was not in favour of a wholly ethnic-Albanian state in the province, and said conditions would be created for other groups to return.

Tens of thousands of Serbs and gypsies have fled Kosovo since Yugoslav forces left last month. Mr Rugova said their property would be protected.

'748 bodies'

[ image: Pausing to speak as he arrives back in Kosovo]
Pausing to speak as he arrives back in Kosovo
However, the legacy hindering any ethnic reintegration in the province was highlighted on Thursday by reports that Italian troops had found 748 bodies so far in their sector.

Brigadier-General Mauro Del Vecchio said that Italian units in western Kosovo had found 31 mass graves.

He said the west-northwest zone of the province had suffered the worst destruction at the hands of Serbian security forces during the conflict.

"I think the degree of devastation was so high because the population in our area of operations was very homogeneous.

"So when the people were driven out, the destruction was systematic and organised," he told a news conference.

'Free' Kosovo

[ image:  ]
Mr Rugova travelled to Kosovo by car, and was greeted by hundreds of cheering supporters along the route from the border with the former Yugoslav of Macedonia.

He said he was "very happy to be back in a free Kosovo", and that he still regarded himself as the president of Kosovo.

Mr Rugova was elected president of Kosovo in 1998 elections which were never recognised by Belgrade, but he has been overshadowed in recent months by the more radical Kosovo Liberation Army.

The leaders of the KLA remain Mr Rugova's bitter opponents and have formed a rival provisional government under Prime Minister Hashim Thaci.

Kosovo - Key figures
Unlike Mr Rugova, they entered Kosovo hard on the heels of the K-For peacekeeping force.

Correspondents say the stage is set for a contest for power when preparations get under way for elections.

Controversial meeting

The BBC's Nick Childs: "Ibrahim Rugova and his supporters are enjoying the moment"
On 1 April, Mr Rugova met Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, while Serbian forces were in the process of expelling thousands of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo.

The KLA subsequently denounced Mr Rugova for providing President Milosevic with a photo opportunity - although Mr Rugova has repeatedly said he was acting under duress.

There have been no signs yet that the KLA leadership and Mr Rugova are prepared to patch up their differences.

Mr Rugova also said he there would be full co-operation with the international civilian and military authorities in Kosovo.

The BBC's Nick Childs: "Large numbers of people lined the route"
His arrival coincided with that of Bernard Kouchner, who is taking over as head of the United Nations civilian administration for Kosovo

Mr Rugova was held under house arrest by Serbian police during the first phase of Nato's air strikes. He was allowed to leave the country, and has spent much of the time since then in Italy.

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