As Kosovo President Hashim Thaci headed home Thursday to face accusations of war crimes from the 1990s conflict with Serbia, supporters and critics alike defended the “just” struggle that paved their path to independence.
Thaci was the former political leader of the ethnic Albanian guerilla group, the Kosovo Liberation Army (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 charges which include murder, enforced disappearance, persecution and torture.
The prosecutors said they published the indictment early because Thaci and others have been trying to “obstruct the work” of the tribunal, which operates under Kosovo law but has international judges.
It is unlikely that the 52-year-old would face arrest before the indictment is approved by a judge, which could take months, though a court spokesperson declined to specify.
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 he updated the cover photo of his Facebook profile on Thursday with the crest of the KLA, featuring a double-headed eagle.
He has previously said he would comply with the court and that he is innocent and has “nothing to hide”.
Both his fans and his detractors, meanwhile, 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.
Calling for calm and noting that all are innocent until proven guilty, the government underlined that the war itself was “just and liberating and, as such, will remain one of the most important periods in the country’s history”.
In the capital Pristina, pensioner Qazim Fazlia said he found the court “unfair” for only investigating KLA fighters.
“We know that Serbia is the one that has committed crimes in Kosovo,” he told AFP.
Skender Musa, a lawyer, said he hoped the court would “clean” the rebels’ record.
“It is extremely certain that no KLA soldier who has worn the uniform has committed crimes against Serb civilians,” he told AFP.
The left-wing party Vetevendosje, which is sharply critical of Thaci, also affirmed its belief “in the pure and just war of the KLA and we are committed now and always to defend it.”
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.
Critics see him as the face of a entrenched political elite accused of rampant corruption and state capture.
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”.
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, (party) president Veseli and all other comrades,” he added.
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