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Kosovo war crimes court ready for first indictments: chief judge

PRISTINA (Reuters) - A special court with international prosecutors and judges set up to tackle alleged war crimes by ethnic Albanians against Serbs during Kosovo’s 1998-99 war is ready to proceed with its first indictments, its president said in an interview.

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The court, which could indict or call as witnesses current officials in Pristina’s government, will function under Kosovo law but operate in the Netherlands to minimize the risk of witness intimidation and judicial corruption in Kosovo.

The Kosovo Specialist Chamber was set up in The Hague following U.S. and European Union pressure on the Kosovo government to confront allegations of atrocities against ethnic Serbs by Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) guerrillas.

The KLA rose up against then-Serbian strongman President Slobodan Milosevic, eventually winning crucial NATO air support that halted the killing and expulsion of Kosovo Albanian civilians in a brutal counter-insurgency campaign.

Kosovo, with a 90 percent ethnic Albanian majority, declared independence from Serbia in 2008 and has been recognized by over 110 states, but not by Serbia or Russia.

The now-disbanded KLA, which counts among its former ranks much of Kosovo’s current political elite, has been dogged for years by allegations that it sold organs removed from murdered Serb prisoners on the black market.

“We are really fully operational,” Ekaterina Trendafilova, the Bulgarian court president, said, though she did not know when the first indictments would be filed.

Asked if anyone in Kosovo would have immunity, she said: “There is no immunity for anyone regardless of their position, and amnesty also cannot apply.”

“(We will be addressing) individual criminal responsibility not related to any organization, to any group or ethnicity.”

Local media and analysts speculated that some of Kosovo’s top officials who held commanding positions within the KLA could face indictments or be called as witnesses.

A 2011 report for the Council of Europe linked leading Kosovo figures – notably President Hashim Thaci – to gruesome crimes against Serbs, including trade in organs harvested from prisoners of war. Thaci has denied any wrongdoing.

Another Hague-based court, the U.N. Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), will close down soon after delivering its last major verdict on Wednesday, convicting former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic of genocide.

The ICTY, which addressed crimes mainly in the former Yugoslav republics of Bosnia and Croatia, indicted 161 people in all - including Milosevic, who died in prison during his trial - and convicted 83, more than 60 of them ethnic Serbs.

Reporting by Fatos Bytyci; Editing by Ivana Sekularac and Mark Heinrich