Ethnic Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova unexpectedly departed for Macedonia Thursday evening, only hours after returning to Kosovo, leaving an empty chair at today's inaugural meeting of a U.N.-sponsored government council.

Rugova's absence at the meeting was the latest in a series of quixotic actions that have undercut his support in Kosovo.

Even without Rugova, the council--composed of ethnic Albanians, Serbs and other minority representatives--held its first meeting after days of delay. It decided to endorse joint inspections of tense areas in Kosovo by Serbian and ethnic Albanian leaders in an effort to build confidence between the two groups.

Rugova's aides described his departure from Kosovo as a deliberate tactic to express his pique over the number of council seats that were allocated to rival ethnic Albanian political parties.

Until this year, Rugova had been the political darling in the United States and Europe among Kosovo leaders, because of his support for a pacifist solution to repression by the Serb-led Yugoslav government. The West believed this approach would less likely result in the separation of Kosovo from Yugoslavia and its dominant republic, Serbia.

Rugova was twice elected president of a shadow government by the ethnic Albanian majority in Kosovo. But his star faded in 1997 as popular frustration grew over the absence of any political reform, and his Democratic Party of Kosovo was eclipsed in the last year by an explosion of support for the Kosovo Liberation Army, which waged a guerrilla war against Serbian police and Yugoslav army troops to end Serbian rule.

In March, ethnic Albanian leaders anointed the KLA's top political officer, Hashim Thaqi, as the prime minister of a new provisional government.

During the war, Rugova's standing sank further when he was shown on Serbian television shaking hands with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. It later became clear that he did so under duress, while his family was under house arrest in Kosovo. He was allowed to leave for Italy in May, but his failure to return to the province after the end of the war in June provoked resentment.

The Associated Press reported from Belgrade:

Hundreds of angry Yugoslav army reservists blocked central squares in two Serbian cities--Nis and Krusevac--joining a growing number of soldiers demanding long-overdue pay for their service in Kosovo during NATO airstrikes.

Also today, 10,000 opponents of Milosevic held a rally in the central Serbian town of Kraljevo, the latest in a series of protests organized by the opposition umbrella group, Alliance for Change.

CAPTION: Whistle-blowing student protesters demand the resignation of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in the central Serbian town of Kraljevo.