Kosovo defends 'just war' after president accused of war crimes

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Pristina (AFP)

As Kosovo President Hashim Thaci rushed home Thursday to face accusations of war crimes from the 1990s conflict with Serbia, Kosovars defended the "just war" that paved their path to independence.

Thaci was the former political leader of the ethnic Albanian guerilla group, the KLA, which launched a rebellion against Belgrade more than 20 years ago when Kosovo was a southern province of Serbia.

On Wednesday, he and others were accused a slew of war crimes linked to the 1998-99 war in an indictment filed by special prosecutors at the Kosovo Specialist Chambers in The Hague.

Their victims included "hundreds of known victims of Kosovo Albanian, Serb, Roma, and other ethnicities and include political opponents," said the prosecutors, who still need a pre-trial judge to approve the charges.

The prosecutors said they published the charges early because Thaci and others have been trying to "obstruct the work" of the tribunal, which operates under Kosovo law but has international judges.

- 'This court is unfair' -

Thaci, who was on his way home after cutting short a planned trip to the US to discuss lingering tensions with Serbia, has not yet responded to the charges.

But Kosovars have come to the defence of the rebels who rose up against Belgrade in a war that cost about 13,000 lives, overwhelmingly Kosovo Albanians.

"This court is unfair because it only judges KLA soldiers... We know that Serbia is the one that has committed crimes in Kosovo," said Qazim Fazlia, a pensioner in the capital Pristina.

Skender Musa, a lawyer, said he hoped the court would "clean" the KLA's record.

"It is extremely certain that no KLA soldier who has worn the uniform has committed crimes against Serb civilians," he told AFP.

- 'Just and liberating' -

The conflict ended after a US-led NATO intervention in 1999 forced Serb troops to withdraw from the former province.

Top Serbian military and police officials were later convicted by international justice of war crimes during the conflict in which thousands of ethnic Albanian civilians were killed, tortured or forced to leave home.

But the KLA is also accused of atrocities against Serbs, Roma and ethnic Albanian rivals during and after the war.

Many rebel commanders have gone on to dominate Kosovo politically during its first decade of independence, which Serbia still rejects.

First as prime minister and now president, Thaci himself has remained at the centre of the political scene throughout.

His right-hand man Kadri Veseli, the KLA's former spy chief who now leads the political party founded by Thaci, was also accused of the crimes and has rejected them as "untrue".

The government called for calm and noted that the war was "just and liberating and, as such, will remain one of the most important periods in the country's history".

Kosovo's ambassador to the US, Vlora Citaku, a close associate of Thaci, wrote on Twitter: "When the dust settles & the smoke clears, #KLA will remain the most successful liberation movement in modern history."

Former prime minister Ramush Haradinaj, another ex-rebel, also came to the president's defence.

"The Kosovo Liberation Army has waged a pure war, which resulted in the freedom and establishment of the Republic of Kosovo," he wrote on Facebook.

"We believe in the innocence of president Thaci, president Veseli and all other comrades," he added.