Former rebels hold party conference

PRISTINA, May 22, 2000 -- (Reuters) A party with its roots in the Kosovo Liberation Army became the first on Saturday to hold a congress in post-war Kosovo, marking another stage in international efforts to establish democracy in the province.

The Party for the Democratic Progress of Kosovo (PPDK) began the three-day congress with a speech from its leader, Hashim Thaqi, a former commander of the ethnic Albanian guerrilla group which fought Serbian rule and has now officially disbanded.

"Today Kosovo has entered a new historic era," Thaqi told several hundred delegates at a hotel in the provincial capital Pristina. "This conference will determine the political objectives which our party will pursue in the future."

Since Serb forces withdrew last June and NATO and the United Nations took over responsibility for the Yugoslav province, Kosovo's political landscape has been in a state of flux. New parties, politicians and alliances are still emerging.

While the PPDK sees itself as the natural political home for former KLA fighters, several other former commanders have clearly formed a different view and begun setting up their own parties.

Bernard Kouchner, the French head of Kosovo's UN-led administration, told delegates that holding a party conference was "a vivid sign of a democratic culture".

The UN aims to hold Kosovo's first democratic elections, at municipal level, in October this year.

"We should all contribute to creating a democratic climate in Kosovo," Kouchner said in a plea for an end to the intolerance, characterized by numerous attacks on Serbs and members of other minorities, which has plagued post-war Kosovo.

"This means open debate. This means no intimidation of whatever kind," Kouchner said.

In the latest killing to hit the Serb community, a man was shot dead near the town of Vucitrn on Friday night. Two ethnic Albanians were arrested, NATO-led peacekeepers said.

All Kosovo's main parties, which cater for ethnic Albanians who make up the vast majority of the population, support independence for the territory. But most have yet to set out policies on other issues which would make them distinctive.

The province's biggest party, the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), has still to set a date for its congress and local media have reported policy disputes among its leaders.

But the LDK, which long advocated passive resistance to Serbian rule and is led by the academic Ibrahim Rugova, enjoys a strong lead in opinion polls over all other parties.

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