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Ex-guerrilla Ceku asked to form Kosovo government

Written by: Staff
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PRISTINA, Serbia and Montenegro, March 2 (Reuters) Kosovo's president today asked former guerrilla commander Agim Ceku to form a new government, moving fast to fill the post after the prime minister resigned in the middle of talks with Serbia on the Albanian demand for independence.

''The president requests that the nominated prime minister create a government based on the coalition agreement,'' said a statement from the office of President Fatmir Sejdiu.

Ceku, 45, an ethnic Albanian veteran of Kosovo's 1998-99 guerrilla war against Serb forces, will replace Bajram Kosumi, who quit yesterday under a barrage of domestic and international criticism.

His appointment is certain to make waves in Belgrade, where a 4-year-old Serbian arrest warrant accuses him of war crimes against Serbs.

The southern Serbian province of Kosovo has been run by the United Nations since 1999, when NATO bombs drove out Serb forces accused of ethnic cleansing in a two-year war against separatist guerrillas led by, among others, Ceku.

Serbs and Kosovo Albanians met in Vienna last month for the first round of U.N.-mediated negotiations to decide the future of the territory, with the 90-percent ethnic Albanian majority expected to clinch independence. They meet again on March 17.

Ceku, a former Yugoslav army officer who also fought in Croatia's 1991-95 war against Serb forces for independence from Yugoslavia, won the implicit backing of Kosovo's Western backers at a morning meeting in the UN headquarters in Pristina.

''I never had any political ambitions, but if it is demanded of me to make my contribution to Kosovo then I'm ready to do so,'' said the bulky general, who heads a civil emergency unit created in 1999 to absorb former rebel fighters.

''I'll don my political hat,'' he told reporters as he emerged from talks with UN officials and senior foreign diplomats.

Serbia said his nomination was an outrage.

''It's as if someone is trying to find the solution least acceptable to the Serb side,'' said Goran Bogdanovic, a member of the Serb negotiating team.

Around 100,000 Serbs live in Kosovo, many in isolated enclaves guarded by troops of the 17,000-strong NATO-led peace force. About as many fled a wave of revenge attacks in 1999.

Kosumi resigned yesterday after sustained criticism of his government's lacklustre performance in meeting democratic standards set by the United Nations to create a just and multi-ethnic society in Kosovo.

Western diplomats say improving the lives of Kosovo Serbs -- outnumbered 20-1 by ethnic Albanians -- is key to clinching independence. Belgrade says independence is unthinkable. Rich in Orthodox religious heritage, Kosovo has been key to Serbian identity and history for the past 1,000 years.

REUTERS OM RN1928

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