ROME (AP) _ Kosovo's most prominent ethnic Albanian leader, Ibrahim Rugova, flew to Rome on Wednesday with permission from Yugoslav authorities, prompting speculation that his arrival might be part of a diplomatic offensive by Belgrade.

Western governments believe Rugova had been under virtual house arrest in Yugoslavia, and the visit is his first abroad since NATO airstrikes began March 24.

Rugova left Belgrade aboard a special flight that was prearranged with NATO to avoid airstrikes, Italian news reports said. The ethnic Albanian leader stepped off the plane with his family, smiling and sporting his trademark red scarf.

Shortly after his arrival, Rugova was whisked to a villa for talks with Italian Premier Massimo D'Alema and Foreign Minister Lamberto Dini.

In Washington, State Department spokesman James Foley called Rugova's arrival in Italy ``a positive development.''

``Obviously, we will be eager to talk to him,'' Foley said.

Asked if the move would prompt U.S. concessions, Foley replied, ``Not one bit.''

Rugova has held meetings with senior Serbian officials recently, purportedly to work out a political settlement. However, NATO has said he may have been forced to participate.

Rugova and the Italian premier and foreign minister held ``long and cordial talks,'' on Wednesday, discussing the possibility of a solution to the conflict over Kosovo, D'Alema's office said in a statement.

The statement pointedly said, ``Ibrahim Rugova will be able to contribute as a free man'' to the search for such a solution.

An Italian Foreign Ministry source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Rugova brought no new proposals from Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

Last month, Yugoslav media said Rugova and Serbian President Milan Milutinovic issued a joint statement calling for an end to NATO's bombing, talks between the Serbian government and ethnic Albanian political leaders, and a settlement granting ``wide self-rule,'' with respect to the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Serbia and Yugoslavia.

In Tirana, Albania, Bilall Sherifi, an adviser to Hashim Thaci, leader of the provisional government of Kosovo, said, ``If he maintains the position he espoused when he was hostage of the Serbs, his word will be useless for the Kosovo people.''