KOSOVO president Ibrahim Rugova, the ethnic Albanian leader who came to epitomise the province's long struggle for independence from Serbia, has died without seeing his dream fulfilled. He was 61.

Rugova - often called the Gandhi of the Balkans, in an allusion to the Indian leader's epic campaign for independence - died from lung cancer. He leaves a vacuum in the faction-ridden political scene at a crucial time. The province is embarking on the delicate process of negotiating a solution that its ethnic Albanian majority hopes will lead to full independence.

Though diagnosed with cancer last September, Rugova continued to lead the negotiating team for what he hoped would be the final countdown with Serbia. He met regularly with western politicians, insisting on recognition of the province's independence even as he struggled at times to catch his breath.

With his trademark scarf wrapped around his neck, Rugova had cult status among many ethnic Albanians. He was the living symbol of their demand for independence from Serbia since the early 1990s, when he led the nonviolent fight against Serbian repression under Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic.

It will be difficult for any other Kosovo politician to fill his shoes. Rugova won international respect through the peaceful nature of his opposition to Serb dominance, in contrast to other Kosovo Albanians now in positions of leadership, who were part of the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army that fought Serb troops in the 1998-99 war. While Serb forces are considered the main perpetrators of atrocities, several KLA leaders face trial by the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, including former Kosovo prime minister Ramush Haradinaj, an ex-rebel commander.

Rugova's path to prominence started in the late 1980s after he confronted Serb writers in Belgrade and urged equal time, chances and resources for the province and its ethnic Albanian majority.

Cracks were appearing in the old Yugoslavia and its ideal of ethnic co-existence, with nationalists of all ethnic groups starting to make their voices heard. The first shots of the wars that would start the final unravelling of the southern Slav federation would soon be fired.

He was elected head of the Kosovo Writers'Association in 1988, which became the main front of non-violent opposition to Serb rule. As Milosevic's grip on the province tightened, the Sorbonne-educated linguist, writer and professor of Albanian literature was chosen to lead the Democratic League of Kosovo. That put him at the helm of the largest movement espousing the dream of independence. He soon was the front man for ethnic Albanian aspirations of a breakwith Serbia.

Rugova wanted to be perceived as a modest leader. Still, his lifestyle drew criticism. He lived in a sprawling villa in one of Pristina's affluent neighbourhoods. For years he did not walk the streets of the capital, travelling instead in bulletproof cars and surrounded by dozens of bodyguards. Little was known of the process of decision-making within the party.

Rugova had many enemies.

He was despised by Serbs who want Kosovo to remain part of Serbia, and ethnic Albanian radicals - particularly former rebel fighters - held deep grudges against him for failing to support the rebel KLA.

Bombs were hurled at his residence and he escaped an apparent assassination attempt in March 2005 when a remotecontrolled bomb damaged his car but left him unscathed.

His popularity was shaken in 1998 when ethnic Albanians began an armed rebellion against Serb forces, triggering two years of fighting which left some 10,000 people dead. The war stopped when Nato air strikes forced Serbia to relinquish control over the province.

His appearance alongside Milosevic, urging an end to the bombing at the height of the conflict, during which ethnic cleansing forced about one million Albanians from their homes, dealt a huge blow to his image. His political opponents - mainly rebel leaders - accused him of treason. He stayed in Italy during the Nato bombing and did not return until the warwas over, leading to accusations of cowardice. Rugova later said Serb security forces had forced him to appear in public and denounce the Nato bombing campaign or face dire "consequences".

But those setbacks dented rather than destroyed his largerthan-life status. He shot back into the political scene after the end of the war, winning all the elections he contested.

Turning the tables on Milosevic three years after their joint television appearance, he testified against him at the UN war crimes tribunal in May 2002.

Beyond his commitment to Kosovo's independence, foreign visitors remembered the softspoken Rugova for his shy smile - and his love of minerals. He frequently presented heads of state and other dignitaries with a sparkling chunk with quartz orpyrite, mined in Kosovo and wrapped in a napkin with the province's presidential seal. Diplomats jokingly measured their popularity through the size of the rocks he gave them.

Though born a Muslim, Rugova showed great admiration for the Roman Catholic Church: a large photograph of him with late Pope John Paul II occupied pride of place on his wall. Rugova met the Pope five times and frequently asked for his blessings and prayers.

In August 2005, he laid the foundation stone for the only cathedral in Kosovo's capital that will bear the name of Mother Teresa, the beatified Albanian nun. It would be one of his last public appearances - and a controversial one in mostly Muslim Kosovo.