Kosovo's guerrilla 'heroes' fear war crimes court

by Ismet HAJDARI and Nicolas GAUDICHET

Pristina (AFP) - In Kosovo, the guerrillas who fought for independence from Serbia a decade ago are revered as heroes.

However, with the 10th anniversary of Kosovo's independence declaration on February 17, they fear a new international court is preparing to indict them for war crimes.

Kosovo's war veterans association boasts 40,000 members, although the actual numbers who battled Serbian forces during the 1998-99 conflict were undoubtedly lower.

But they wield considerable political clout, with streets and squares named after their fallen comrades across the territory, whose independence has been recognised by more than 110 countries, but not by Belgrade or Moscow.

The association maintains links with the ruling parties, the PDK of President Hashim Thaci and AAK of Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj.

The veterans are behind a petition that gathered 15,000 signatures urging lawmakers to abolish Kosovo's own 2015 legislation that established the Hague-based tribunal.

With the EU-backed court poised to issue indictments, ruling coalition MPs have twice attempted to repeal the law since December.

- Western firmness -

"MPs who support this initiative and the politicians who lead it despite their denials will be the subject of specific and harsh consequences," said US ambassador to Pristina Greg Delawie.

"They know this, we have told them."

His strong words were noted in the country of 1.8 million people, which depends heavily on the international community.

The court will work under Kosovo's legal system but sit in the Hague for the sake of witness protection. It will investigate accusations of war crimes allegedly committed by the members of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), an ethnic Albanian guerrilla movement.

Speculation abounds that President Thaci, the former head of the KLA's political wing, and parliamentary speaker Kadri Veseli, ex-chief of the guerrilla secret services, could be among those facing prosecution for war crimes against civilians.

The prime minister's brother Daut Haradinaj, 39 -- a member of parliament and also a former KLA commander -- is also said to be among potential suspects.

"I have no fear," he told AFP.

The court, composed of foreign judges, "violates the sovereignty of the Republic of Kosovo," said the MP, who lost two other brothers in the war.

The tribunal was created following a 2011 Council of Europe report that accused the KLA of the kidnapping and disappearance of 500 civilians, mostly ethnic Serbs and Roma but also ethnic Albanian political opponents.

The Kosovo war -- the last conflict in the former Yugoslavia -- claimed more than 13,000 lives. It ended after a NATO air campaign forced out the Serbs and put Kosovo under UN protection.

More than 10,000 of the dead were ethnic Albanians, almost 2,300 were Serbs and Montenegrins and the remainder included a few hundred Romas.

- 'Just war' -

Veteran association leader Hysni Gucati, 59, said he was offended by the "injustice" of a tribunal aimed at trying "only KLA members", although the court's chief, Bulgarian Ekaterina Trendafilova, denied the charge.

"We waged a just war for the liberation of our country," the veteran said, showing photographs of atrocities committed by Serbs.

"We have opposed the court and will continue to do so," said Xhevded Qeriqi, 43, chief of the Council for Defence of former KLA fighters, another association.

But the parliamentary rearguard action seems to be failing.

Describing the court as a "historical injustice", Thaci nevertheless insisted Kosovo would respect "all its international obligations".

He told AFP he was willing to assist investigators "at any moment, under any circumstances, at any time, with all my capacity."

Will the people of Kosovo support the veterans?

There are no opinion polls, but Arben Hajrullahu, professor of political science at the University of Pristina, has doubts.

"We will not have a rebellion of a majority of citizens, who will be happy that all this is cleared up once and for all," he said.

An MP from the opposition LDK party, Doruntina Maloku, 35, is pleased with this new chance to hold to account the assassins of her father, Enver Maloku, killed in January 1999 in Pristina.

The slain journalist was close to the "father of the nation" Ibrahim Rugova, a political opponent of the KLA.

For Maloku, "an entire population should not be afraid of the accusations of crimes brought against certain people."