Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Belgrade put on back foot after Kosovo PM submits to UN court

The UN war crimes court's indictment against Kosovo prime minister Ramush Haradinaj, long demanded by Belgrade, has put the Serbian authorities on the back foot over their own record of cooperation with the tribunal at The Hague.

Apparently aware that the ball is in their court, the Serbian authorities have been careful not to sound triumphant after Haradinaj resigned as prime minister on Tuesday and flew to The Hague a day later.

With Haradinaj in The Hague, Serbia has lost its main argument for refusing direct talks with the ethnic Albanian-dominated government in Kosovo, which has been under UN administration since the war.

Moreover, Haradinaj's surrender not only undermines Belgrade's tough stance against the Kosovo government, it also exposes its own failure to deliver war crimes fugitives to The Hague as demanded by the international community.

While the exact charges against Haradinaj have not been made public, they are likely to stem from information provided to UN prosecutors by the Serbian government, which has formally charged the ex-guerrilla commander with 108 war crimes allegedly committed during Kosovo's 1998-1999 conflict.

Serbian leaders were quick to praise Haradinaj's "responsible" decision to cooperate with the court.

"Mr. Haradinaj's resignation and his decision to respect the indictment of the tribunal in the Hague is a responsible act," Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic said in a statement faxed to AFP on Tuesday.

Serbian President Boris Tadic, Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica and other top officials held an urgent meeting Tuesday to discuss the situation in Kosovo, which remains a hot-bed of ethnic hatred between its independence-seeking ethnic Albanian majority and its minority Serbs.

Following the meeting, Kostunica said in a statement that "the most important thing is that everybody acts constructively and contributes to keeping stability in the province."

In a separate statement, Tadic called for all fugitive war crimes indictees -- most of whom are ethnic Serbs -- to follow Haradinaj's example and promptly turn themselves in.

"Haradinaj has given an example of what should be done," said a Western diplomat in Belgrade, requesting anonymity.

Some Serbian officials also see the writing on the wall.

"His transfer to The Hague is going to increase pressure on Serbia to extradite the indictees to the court," said Rasim Lajic, Serbian human rights and minorities minister who is charge of relations with The Hague court.

Four Serbian generals have surrendered to The Hague in the past month but, in stark contrast to Haradinaj's immediate resignation and surrender, the Serb indictees have not gone so easily.

And they were not the big fish sought by the tribunal -- wartime Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. Belgrade denies UN allegations that it is providing shelter to Mladic, the Serb military commander during Bosnia's 1992-1995 conflict.

Haradinaj, an ethnic Albanian, was a rebel commander in western Kosovo during the separatist war against Serbian forces under then Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, who has been in custody at The Hague since 2001.

He is seen as nothing more than a terrorist in Serbia, but in Kosovo his supporters love him as a freedom fighter who helped liberate Kosovo Albanians from Serb oppression.

A UN review of the Kosovo government's efforts to meet UN-set standards of democracy is expected this year before a decision is taken on whether to open talks on the ethnic Albanians' independence demands.

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