Mourning former rebel chief

PRIZREN, May 12, 2000 -- (Reuters) Tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians gathered in silence in Kosovo's second city on Thursday to mourn a former guerrilla commander regarded as a key partner by international authorities running the province.

Mourners in the southern city of Prizren filed past the coffin of Ekrem Rexha, who was gunned down in a mysterious attack on Monday which stunned both Kosovo's ethnic Albanians and international officials, before it was taken to a nearby village for burial.

Rexha, 39, was a former regional commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army which fought against Serb rule.

His was the second slaying of a former KLA commander in the past few weeks. Besim Mala, a senior officer in the KLA's heartland Drenica region, was shot dead in broad daylight in the centre of the provincial capital Pristina last month.

Also known as Commander Drini, Rexha was widely seen as a moderate within the KLA, which has officially disbanded but whose members still wield considerable influence.

"He was an important ally for all those working for peace, tolerance and reconstruction in Kosovo," Bernard Kouchner, the head of Kosovo's U.N.-led administration, said in a statement.

After NATO's air war to end repression of the province's Albanian majority drove out Serb forces last June, Rexha took up a post in the Prizren city administration, composed jointly of international and local officials.

"He understood the needs of his country and particularly the attitude Kosovars should display when building the new society," said Lennart Myhlback, the head of the local administration.

Myhlback said Rexha had told colleagues he was in danger. "Despite that unacceptable feeling, he continued with his tasks," he told mourners in Prizren, a picturesque city near the Albanian border set against a mountain backdrop.

Police estimated that up to 50,000 people had turned out in bright sunshine to pay their respects to Rexha in Prizren ahead of his burial later in the day in the nearby village of Landovica.

Shops were closed throughout the city and Albanian flags bearing a black eagle on a red background flew at half mast.

Around 10,000 mourners made the journey to Landovica, where six protection corps members fired shots over his coffin.

Former comrades paid tribute to Rexha, a cultured former Yugoslav army officer who spoke seven languages.

"To kill a commander in front of his home is a crime not against the fighter but against the nation which he fought to liberate," said Lieutenant-General Agim Ceku, the protection corps leader who was the KLA's chief of staff.

No one has so far been detained for Rexha's murder. Kosovo's international police say they have put 30 officers on the case.

Speculation on who could be responsible has ranged from the Serbian secret service through political rivals to former comrades in arms from the KLA, which has broken up into several groups and political factions since its disbandment.

Mourners heaped wreaths on Rexha's grave in a cemetery reserved for war heroes.

"We lost someone who fought on the front line during the war," said Milaim Bytyci, a 56-year-old man from Prizren. "Whoever killed him must be punished by us and by God."

Original article