U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan named French Health Minister Bernard Kouchner yesterday as his special representative in Kosovo, making him a virtual governor of the Yugoslav province during its occupation by a NATO-led peacekeeping force.

The appointment ended an intense diplomatic competition among European NATO governments for one of the most important jobs in the postwar reconstruction of Kosovo. It also represented a diplomatic victory for French President Jacques Chirac, who lobbied aggressively on Kouchner's behalf.

A resolution passed by the U.N. Security Council last month, authorizing the peacekeeping intervention in Kosovo, placed the United Nations in charge of civilian administration of the province as well as a multibillion-dollar aid and reconstruction program.

Annan said that Kouchner's initial priorities would be to ensure the resettlement of Kosovo's refugees before the onset of winter, and to pursue the reconciliation of the province's Serbs and ethnic Albanians.

"We are determined to try and create a multiethnic Kosovo," Annan said after making the announcement. "It's not going to be easy, but we are going to do our best."

Kouchner, a veteran humanitarian who co-founded the French relief organization Doctors Without Borders, will have more sweeping authority than many heads of state, including the power to levy taxes, write new laws and form a police force.

Kouchner said he plans to resign from his government post and travel to Kosovo in a matter of days.

He will replace Annan's acting Kosovo envoy, Brazilian Sergio Viera de Mello.

U.S. officials were privately chilly, but resigned, at the prospect of the appointment of Kouchner, who is viewed by critics as unpredictable and excessively independent. He was criticized for being a self-promoter in the early 1990s when he posed on a beach in Mogadishu with a sack of rice during the U.N. intervention in Somalia.

The Clinton administration favored the appointment of Martti Ahtisaari, the Finnish president who helped broker the deal ending the NATO air war against Serbia, according to senior diplomats. But Ahtisaari dropped out of the running after Chirac insisted that he must resign as Finland's president if he wanted the job.

In an apparent gesture to Washington, Annan appointed James "Jock" Covey, a former U.S. diplomat who has served in the White House and with the United Nations in Bosnia, as Kouchner's principal deputy. U.S. officials characterized Covey as a seasoned administrator.