Former Kosovo rebel chief acquitted over war crimes

 

Serbia has condemned the United Nations court at The Hague for acquitting a former Kosovar rebel leader of war crimes, a fortnight after it cleared two top Croatian generals of committing atrocities against Serbs.

The verdict is likely to complicate the European Union’s efforts to improve relations between Serbia and Kosovo, and make Ireland’s task during its EU presidency next year of guiding the countries down the long road towards membership of the bloc more difficult.

Ramush Haradinaj, a commander of ethnic Albanian guerrillas during their 1998- 1999 war with Serb forces, was cleared of murdering and torturing Serbs to drive their community out of Kosovo.

Two fellow fighters in the KLA rebel movement, Idriz Balaj and Lahi Brahimaj, were also cleared.

Nicknamed “Rambo” during the war, Mr Haradinaj (44) later entered politics and became prime minister in December 2004, but resigned in March 2005 to answer the charges levelled against him.

He was acquitted in 2008, but the court ordered a retrial due to alleged intimidation of witnesses in the first case.

Judges ruled yesterday that there was no evidence to support the allegations made against the accused, a verdict that sparked celebrations in Kosovo, which formally declared independence from Belgrade in 2008.

After Nato bombing drove out Serb forces in 1999, Kosovo spent nine years under UN administration.

Kosovo’s prime minister Hashim Thaci, another former rebel commander, said the ruling showed that the “fight for freedom and independence was just and sacred” and that the KLA “never committed the crimes of which we were unfairly accused”. Mr Haradinaj’s lawyer, Ben Emmerson, said his client planned on “resuming his rightful position as the political leader of the country.”

EU accession

That could see him become a key figure in EU-brokered talks between Kosovo and Serbia, which have been told by Brussels to improve their relations in order to make progress towards EU membership.

Belgrade hopes to receive an official date for the start of EU accession talks under Ireland’s presidency of the bloc, which starts in January.

“The tribunal, apparently created outside international law, was set up to try the Serbian people . . . Nobody will be convicted for the terrible crimes against Kosovo Serbs,” Serbia’s president Tomislav Nikolic said of the UN court.