Bulgaria invites Kosovo's Thaqi to boost ties

SOFIA, Jan 29, 2000 -- (Reuters) Bulgaria's ruling Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) has invited Kosovo Albanian leader Hashim Thaqi to visit in a move intended to boost Balkan cooperation, Prime Minister Ivan Kostov said on Friday.

Former guerrilla leader Thaqi, prime minister of a self-declared provisional government of the Yugoslav province, is expected to come this weekend with Arben Xhaferi, leader of the Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA) in neighbouring Macedonia.

"Thaqi's visit was long planned. Together with Xhaferi we plan to discuss ways to activate Balkan cooperation as part of the Balkan Stability Pact," Kostov, also UDF chairman, told reporters.

"We hope with this meeting to establish friendly relations with Albanians in Kosovo," said Kostov.

Thaqi's Kosovo Liberation Army waged a guerrilla campaign against Serb rule in Kosovo for more than a year, before NATO bombing drove out Serb-dominated Yugoslav forces from the territory last June. Thaqi wants full independence for Kosovo, while Western powers say it should remain part of Yugoslavia.

"I do not see why this meeting should harm relations with Serbia. Bulgaria was among the first to urge revision of sanctions imposed on Serbia," said Kostov.

Earlier this week Russia accused Bulgaria of trying to isolate Belgrade by not inviting Yugoslavia to a Balkan summit last weekend.

The summit, also attended by European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, pressed the West to do more to get off the ground the Balkan Stability Pact, formally launched by the major powers last year but still lacking economic substance.

The prime ministers of seven Balkan states remained divided last Sunday on whether to ease international sanctions imposed on Yugoslavia, which were hurting the economies of its neighbors.

Bulgaria said they should be revised, while Albania said any relaxation would play into the hands of Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic.

Thaqi and Xhaferi are expected to attend a conference of Bulgaria's ethnic Turk Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF). The MRF, the third party in parliament, has frequently held the balance of power in Bulgaria's volatile politics over the past decade and its support is seen as crucial in a general election due next year.

Xhaferi's Albanian party played a crucial role in Macedonia's presidential election last year, whose support helped reformist Boris Trajkovski win.