By Fatos Bytyci
PRISTINA (Reuters) – Kosovo’s prime minister said on Friday he was resigning because he had been called to a war crimes court in The Hague to answer prosecutors’ questions related to Kosovo’s violent independence struggle two decades ago.
“The reason for this decision is because of a call I have received to be interviewed by a specialist chamber as a suspect,” Ramush Haradinaj said, his eyes welling in tears as he spoke to reporters after a government session.
“Now the responsibility is to the president to start consultations and to announce an early election date,” he said, adding he would travel to The Hague next week.
Haradinaj, a former guerrilla commander, has always denied any wrongdoing and said he is ready to face any accusations.
The Specialist Chamber was set up in 2015 to try ex-Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) guerrillas for alleged atrocities in the war of 1998-99 that led to independence from Serbia.
Haradinaj’s resignation will cause further delays in troubled normalisation talks between Kosovo and Serbia. They have been frozen since November 2018 when Kosovo introduced a 100 percent trade tariffs on all products made in Serbia.
Asked about Haradinaj’s case, Christopher Bennet, the spokesman for the prosecutor, told Reuters: “Rule 30 states that I have an obligation to protect the privacy of every individual. I cannot confirm anything.”
The chamber in The Hague is governed by Kosovo law, but 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 Dutch city partly to help ensure protection of witnesses. Previous cases involving high-ranking former KLA officers have seen witness intimidation.
This is the second time Hardinaj has resigned as prime minister. In 2005 he was indicted by the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal for former Yugoslavia. He was tried and acquitted twice by that court.
Kosovo President Hashim Thaci said he respected Haradinaj’s decision and would consult with political parties on forming another government or holding snap elections.
“I believe in the purity of the war of the Kosovo Liberation Army and I believe in the high moral values of the soldiers who fought for freedom,” Thaci said in a statement. One of his own advisers was also called for questioning in The Hague, he added.
Kosovo war veterans organisations say more than 50 ex-KLA guerrillas had been questioned as witnesses or suspects in atrocities against Serbs during the 1998-99 conflict, but that none had been indicted to date.
Thaci and parliament speaker Kadri Veseli are also ex-KLA commanders and local media say they could also be summoned to The Hague for questioning.
A 2011 report by the Council of Europe linked Thaci and some other leading Kosovo figures to gruesome wartime crimes against Serbs, including trade in organs harvested from prisoners of war. Thaci denied any wrongdoing.
The KLA rose up against Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, 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.
(Additional reporting by Maja Zuvela in Sarajevo; Editing by Mark Heinrich)