By Fatos Bytyci
PRISTINA (Reuters) - A court examining war crimes against ethnic Serbs in Kosovo has asked several ex-commanders of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) to attend a preliminary hearing next week, part of a process that could help calm tensions between Belgrade and Pristina.
But the process also has the potential to trigger a political crisis in Kosovo, whose leaders are mostly ex-KLA commanders. Kosovars mostly view the former fighters as heroes for battling Serb forces in the 1998-99 independence war and fear they could be indicted.
The Specialist Chamber was set up in The Hague in 2015 to handle cases of alleged crimes by KLA guerrillas during the war that led to Kosovo's secession from Serbia. Kosovo's Western allies have insisted that Pristina cooperate with the court.
"I never went to Belgrade to fight but I did fight to protect my country," Sabahajdin Cena, one of the ex-KLA commanders asked to testify next week, told Reuters.
"This court is trying to equate the victim with the aggressor," said Cena, who will testify in Pristina.
Ex-KLA commanders Sami Lushtaku and Rrustem Mustafa confirmed they would travel to The Hague to testify next week. Local Kosovo media said one veteran KLA fighter had gone into hiding when he received his invitation to attend.
Kosovo's President Hashim Thaci, Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj and parliamentary speaker Kadri Veseli are all former KLA commanders and could potentially be indicted by the court or called as witnesses, Kosovo media have reported.
A 2011 report that led to the creation of the court linked Thaci and some other leading Kosovo figures to gruesome wartime crimes against Serbs, including trade in organs harvested from prisoners of war. Thaci has denied any wrongdoing.
"Any eventual invitation to the main leaders will have a huge impact on the image of the country," said Imer Mushkolaj, a political analyst in Pristina.
It was not clear how many ex-fighters have been asked to testify in the first hearing and how many of them would travel to the Netherlands to do so.
The special prosecutor's office in The Hague, contacted by Reuters, declined to comment on this or future hearings or to say whether they might result in any indictments.
The office has the authority "to request the presence of and to question suspects, victims and witnesses, if necessary summonsing these persons, collect and examine information and evidence", spokesperson Christopher Bennett told Reuters.
As well as the killing of Serbs, the court will also investigate the killing of some Albanians who were seen as collaborating with the Serbian authorities at that time.
The Specialist Chamber is governed by Kosovo law, but is staffed by international judges and prosecutors. It is funded by the European Union, which both Kosovo and Serbia hope to join.
The court sits in The Hague partly to help ensure protection of witnesses. Previous cases involving high-ranking former KLA officers have seen witness intimidation.
The KLA rose up against Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic in the last 1990s, eventually winning crucial NATO air support that halted the killing and expulsion of Kosovo Albanian civilians during a brutal counter-insurgency campaign.
Kosovo, with a 90 percent ethnic Albanian majority, declared independence from Serbia in 2008 and has been recognised by over 110 states, but not by five EU member states, Serbia or Russia.
Relations between Kosovo and Serbia remain tense, but the EU has told both countries they will not be allowed to join the bloc unless they normalise relations.
(Reporting by Fatos Bytyci; additional reporting by Stephanie van den Berg in the Hague; Editing by Ivana Sekularac and Gareth Jones)