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Kosovo President Is Indicted for War Crimes for Role in War With Serbia

President Hashim Thaci of Kosovo, a guerrilla leader during Kosovo's battle for independence from Serbia during the 1990s, was indicted on 10 counts of war crimes on Wednesday at a special court in the Netherlands. Prosecutors accused him and other former fighters of being "criminally responsible for nearly 100 murders."

The charges, long anticipated, have yet to be accepted by judges at the court, but their timing came as a shock, both in the Balkans and in Washington. Mr. Thaci was to meet on Saturday at the White House with his Serbian counterpart, President Aleksandar Vucic, to continue a Kosovar-Serbian dialogue mediated by American officials.

Mr. Thaci, 52, will no longer attend the meeting, dashing American hopes that the negotiations might finally lead to a settlement between Serbia and Kosovo. Kosovo won autonomy in 1999, aided by a NATO bombing campaign, but Serbia has never recognized Kosovo's sovereignty, and negotiations to reach a final peace deal stalled in 2018. The United States is one of about 100 countries that recognize Kosovo's independence.

"This affects Kosovo in all possible ways," said Agron Bajrami, the head of the Koha Media Group, Kosovo's largest media conglomerate. "It affects the process of dialogue, in which the president was the main interlocutor for both the European Union and the United States, and it will have an enormous effect in the political scene in Kosovo."

Though most of the more than 13,000 casualties in the Kosovo War were Kosovar Albanians killed by Serbian troops, more than 2,000 were Serbs, Roma and Kosovar Albanians killed mostly by NATO bombs or by guerrilla groups like the Kosovo Liberation Army, according to figures from the Humanitarian Law Center, a human rights group with offices in both Serbia and Kosovo.

To investigate possible war crimes carried out by these guerrilla groups, the Kosovar Parliament founded a special judicial system in 2015, staffed by foreign jurists and based in the Netherlands to allow its officials to work more independently.

Though investigators previously had summoned a sitting Kosovar prime minister to give evidence in The Hague, Mr. Thaci and his co-defendants were among the first to be indicted by the prosecutors.

The prosecutors accused Mr. Thaci, Kadri Veseli, a former spy chief, and several unnamed defendants of crimes against humanity, including murder, enforced disappearance of persons, persecution and torture.

"If the indictment is confirmed, it would be unprecedented," said Vigan Qorrolli, a law professor at the University of Pristina in Kosovo's capital. "Some people thought they'd go for the smaller fishes, but they started with the bigger fishes."

Mr. Thaci began his public life as a leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army, but turned to civilian politics after the war ended, serving as both prime minister and foreign minister. Since 2016, he has been Kosovo's mainly ceremonial president.

Mr. Thaci remains one of the pillars of Kosovar political life, revered as a hero of the war by some while others accuse him of being the embodiment of the wayward political class that has ruled Kosovo since its independence from Serbia.

A 2008 report compiled by German intelligence officers accused him of rampant corruption. "People identify him with everything that went wrong after independence," Mr. Bajrami said.

Still, Joseph R. Biden Jr., the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, once described Mr. Thaci as the "George Washington of Kosovo."

Earlier this year, Mr. Thaci helped engineer the collapse of the government of Albin Kurti, a reformist prime minister and longtime political activist who had promised to clean up Kosovo's judicial system, and whom many younger Kosovars viewed as a necessary break from former wartime leaders like Mr. Thaci.

Criticism of Mr. Thaci escalated after his support for a land swap with Serbia, including discussing it in a 2018 interview with The New York Times. Mr. Thaci said he hoped the move would help persuade Serbia to recognize Kosovo's independence. Mr. Thaci now denies he discussed such a land swap with Serbian officials, but the claim remains central to Kosovar political discourse.

Prosecutors at the special court said they had been forced into announcing their indictment on Wednesday because of actions taken by Mr. Thaci and Mr. Veseli to undermine their work, accusing him of "a secret campaign to overturn the law creating the Court."

A spokesman for the prosecutors declined to elaborate. A spokesman for Mr. Thaci also declined to comment.

[Source: By Patrick Kingsley and Gerry Mullany, The New York Times, Berlin, 24Jun20]

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The Question of Kosovo
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