Kosovo's ex-rebels face questions from new EU-backed court

Specialist chambers at The Hague to tackle cases from 1998-9 war in Kosovo

Kosovo’s prime minister Ramush Haradinaj near the monument dedicated to missing persons in Pristina, Kosovo, on new year’s eve. Photograph: Armend Nimani/AFP/Getty Images

Kosovo’s prime minister Ramush Haradinaj near the monument dedicated to missing persons in Pristina, Kosovo, on new year’s eve. Photograph: Armend Nimani/AFP/Getty Images

 

Two former Kosovo rebel commanders have travelled to The Hague for questioning about their forces’ 1998-9 war with Serbian troops, as a new international court prepares to issue its first indictments relating to the conflict.

Rrustem Mustafa and Sami Lushtaku flew to the Netherlands for questioning by prosecutors who are investigating cases that could be brought before the EU-funded Kosovo Specialist Chambers.

It is not clear whether the men will be interviewed as suspects or witnesses to alleged crimes, but there is intense speculation in Kosovo – and considerable anger – over whether former top rebels and current senior politicians could face charges.

Mr Mustafa and Mr Lushtaku deny involvement in any crimes and before leaving Kosovo they met its president, Hashim Thaci, and prime minister Ramush Haradinaj, both of whom were also guerrilla leaders during the conflict.

“As your compatriot and president of the country, I have full confidence in the lofty values that we fought for. We jointly won many battles and freedom and independence for Kosovo,” Mr Thaci wrote on Facebook after the meeting.

“You are national war heroes and will always remain so for the institutions and the people of Kosovo.”

Twice acquitted

Mr Haradinaj, who was twice acquitted of war crimes by a now defunct United Nations court at The Hague, said: “Our liberation war was pure and sacred and this will always be proven to be so. We will face this challenge together, too!”

Fighting in 1998-9 between rebels and government troops in the then Serbian region killed some 13,000 people and displaced about one million – most from Kosovo’s 90 per cent ethnic Albanian majority – before Nato bombing drove out Belgrade’s forces and a UN mission took control.

Kosovo declared independence in 2008 and has been recognised as a state by more than 100 countries, but Serbia rejects its sovereignty and accuses ex-guerrillas such as Mr Thaci and Mr Haradinaj of war crimes.

The specialist chambers stem from a 2011 report by the Council of Europe that linked senior figures in the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army to the torture and murder of Serbs during and immediately after the war, and to the possible harvesting of prisoners’ organs for sale on the black market.

Redress

Kosovo approved the creation of the chambers in 2015 and formally they are part of its judicial system, despite being located in the Netherlands and staffed by international employees.

Top Kosovo politicians say the chambers unfairly target their people, while many Serbs hope the court will redress what they see as the bias of the UN war crimes tribunal, which closed at the end of 2017 after convicting mostly Serb war criminals.

A key task for the chambers will be to ensure witness safety, after allegations of threats and intimidation marred Kosovo-related cases before the UN tribunal.