Acquitted ex-warlord gets hero's welcome in Kosovo

Other News Materials 5 April 2008 00:45 (UTC +04:00)

Former Kosovo rebel commander and prime minister Ramush Haradinaj returned home Friday to a hero's welcome after being acquitted of alleged war crimes against Serbs. ( dpa )

A drummer group and hundreds of cheering people, some waving Albanian and US flags, greeted Haradinaj at the airport in Pristina, the capital of newly independent Kosovo, when he arrived from The Hague.

"I am pleased to be back with my family and among the citizens of Kosovo, where I belong," he said later in a televised speech.

Kosovars now "have the chance to prove to everyone, and above all our closest neighbours, that Kosovo is a place for all its citizens" and that its place is in the European Union and NATO, he said.

The Hague-based tribunal for war crimes in former Yugoslavia ruled Thursday that there was not enough evidence to convict Haradinaj, 39, but also said key witnesses refused to testify for fear of reprisal.

The verdict caused outrage in Serbia, where leading politicians condemned it as "shameful" and a mockery of justice.

In Kosovo, ethnic Albanians - still euphoric over the declaration of independence from Serbia in February - partied in the streets to celebrate a man they consider a hero. Ethnic Albanians constitute about 90 per cent of Kosovo's population.

Kosovo media hailed the acquittal as a vindication of his group's guerrilla war against Belgrade in 1998-99, which led to a brutal reaction by Serb security forces and NATO's air war that broke Serbia's hold on Kosovo.

Haradinaj was tried for his role as one of the top commanders in the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK), which launched a guerrilla war against Belgrade's rule over the majority Albanians in the former province.

After the war, Haradinaj joined other UCK leaders in exchanging combat fatigues for suits. He became prime minister in late 2004, but quit his post and surrendered to The Hague tribunal when he was indicted for war crimes three months later.

Serbia, which still claims sovereignty over Kosovo, has branded the UCK a terrorist organization and has compiled massive legal cases against its commanders, including Haradinaj, the current Prime Minister Hashim Thaci and his predecessor, Agim Ceku.

Serbian prosecutors claim that the three, along with other UCK fighters, killed, tortured and maltreated hundreds of Kosovo Serbs, including policemen, soldiers and civilians.