Kosovo's Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj resigned on Tuesday to face war crimes charges in The Hague, winning international praise for his prompt compliance with the U.N. tribunal.
The 36-year-old former regional commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) during the 1998-99 war against Serb forces said he had informed his government he was indicted and would report to the court on Wednesday.
"I am entirely innocent," said Haradinaj, flanked by weeping ministers marking their 100th day in government. He urged Kosovars to keep up their struggle for independence from Serbia, which he had hoped to lead this year.
The United Nations, NATO and the European Union applauded his "responsible" move and urged calm in the majority Albanian province, which was rocked by anti-Serb riots a year ago.
"His actions demonstrate his deep concern for the future of Kosovo and its people," U.S. State Dept. spokesman Richard Boucher said. Washington urged all parties in the Balkans to arrest and extradite all Hague suspects "as a prerequisite for full integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions".
"I hope it sends a message to others who skulk and hide," Britain's Minister for Europe Denis MacShane said in a reference to Serb, Bosnian and Croatian fugitives whose refusal to surrender is blocking their countries' path to the EU and NATO.
Haradinaj is the most senior former Kosovo guerrilla to be indicted by the court and the first serving head of government since autocrat Slobodan Milosevic, then president of Yugoslavia, who ordered the crackdown on Kosovo Albanian insurgents.
Britain, Germany and Italy sent 1,170 extra troops to Kosovo in case the indictment ignited ethnic unrest. But a police spokesman said the province was "calm and peaceful".
Kosovo's U.N. governor Soren Jessen-Petersen said Haradinaj was a "close partner and friend" whose leadership and commitment had brought Kosovo "closer than ever before to achieving its aspirations". His departure would "leave a big gap", he added.
Kosovo has been run by the United Nations since 11 weeks of NATO bombing drove out Serb forces in 1999. The KLA victory was marred by revenge attacks which provoked the flight of up to 200,000 Serb civilians from their religious heartland.
"GOOD DIPLOMATIC MOVE"
Haradinaj had hoped to be at the helm when talks began later this year on its bid for independence from Serbia, as its Albanian majority of close to 2 million people desires.
Kosovo's President Ibrahim Rugova called him "an exemplary figure of the war for freedom and independence" and said "justice will prevail" so he could resume working for Kosovo.
"At this moment the security situation is very important and we all have to contribute to it," Rugova stressed. Deputy prime minister Adem Salihaj would take over until a new prime minister was chosen and "there will be no damaging vacuum" he added.
Serb President Boris Tadic also urged calm and restraint.
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and Serbia and Montenegro Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic praised Haradinaj for a "responsible" act. Dragan Sutanovca of Serbia's pro-Western Democratic Party said he had made "a good diplomatic move" which will win sympathy for Kosovo's independence aspirations.
Haradinaj had said he would not defy the tribunal.
But conscious of a sudden slide to anarchy a year ago that caught them unawares, peacekeepers were taking no chances. Two days of ethnic Albanian riots against Serb enclaves in March 2004 left 19 people dead and hundreds of homes in ashes.
"There have been indications the security situation is not as good as we want it to be ... we want to be ready for anything," said Captain Sarah Erikson, a NATO spokeswoman.
There are some 20,000 NATO-led troops stationed in Kosovo.
Haradinaj's indictment is sealed. Media reports say it cites murders of Serb civilians and Albanian "collaborators".
Haradinaj said the U.N. was "treating liberation fighters the same as aggressors" in a "trade-off that some have made with the Serbian government to get it to extradite Serb criminals".