EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana called on the leaders of Kosovo to show "unity and responsibility" following the death Saturday of the province's president, Ibrahim Rugova.
Rugova had led Kosovo-Albanians since the early 1990s
"The loss of President Rugova comes at a particularly challenging time," Solana said in a statement. "His wisdom and authority will be greatly missed. At this difficult moment I call on all leaders of Kosovo to show unity and responsibility."
Rugova, who became president in March 2002, died Saturday of lung cancer, aged 61, only days ahead of the start of talks Wednesday in Vienna on the final status of the province.
US troops in the eastern Kosovo town of Vitina in 2001
While the ethnic Albanians, representing 90 percent of the population, are demanding independence, Belgrade is only offering broad autonomy for Kosovo. The province has been run by the UN and NATO since June 1999 when the alliance's air strikes led Serbian forces under then Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw from the province.
The talks have now been postponed until February, UN officials said.
But UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said he believed Rugova's death "will not disrupt this process."
French President Jacques Chirac urged Kosovo's representatives to continue the negotiations in Rugova's "spirit of realism, tolerance and dialogue."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Rugova's commitment to nonviolence and democracy should be "a legacy for all those who carry political responsibility in Kosovo."
Rugova crucial to peace talks
The leadership of the charismatic Kosovo leader, who was called the "Gandhi of the Balkan," was considered crucial for the UN-mediated negotiations.
"With him Kosovo has lost a historic leader who devoted his life to protecting and promoting the rights of the people of Kosovo," Solana said. "President Rugova was a man of peace, firm in the face of oppression, but deeply committed to the ideals of non-violence."
The European Commission, the EU's executive arm, also paid tribute to Rugova, saying in a statement that it "appreciated his work for a peaceful solution to the problems of Kosovo, and encourages all leaders to continue to work in this spirit."
A "tragic moment" for Kosovo
The United Nations chief mediator in Kosovo, Martti Ahtisaari, meanwhile offered his "deepest condolences" to Rugova's family and also called for "calm" and continued negotiations in the province.
"I'm certain that President Rugova would have liked to see that we will proceed with status negotiations so that results can be achieved," Ahtisaari, a former Finnish president and veteran peace broker, told a news conference in Helsinki. "I also express the hope that the situation will remain calm and that the constitution will be honored."
The UN's mission chief in Kosovo said that Rugova's death came at a "tragic moment" for the province.
"It is particularly tragic that president Rugova should leave us in this very decisive moment for the future of Kosovo," said Soren Jessen-Petersen in a statement. "The best tribute that we can pay to president Rugova and his legacy is to stay united during the coming months."
Search for replacement
Rugova's death opens the difficult issue of finding a replacement.
Kosovo's Prime Minister Bajram Kosumi is one potential successor
Many analysts believe none of Rugova's likely successors possess enough of the diplomatic acumen that he had on the world stage in the ethnic Albanian push for independence from Serbia.
Rugova's death would make "the situation more fragile because the other leaders ... have no support from their parties to take the president's throne," local political analyst Nexhmedin Spahiu recently told AFP news service.
"I think we will have an unpredictable phase after Rugova but no unrest," Spahiu said. "It may bring a new quality -- a mechanism to clean up the political scene and establish a clear procedure for changing people in power."