Six arrested, lawmaker sought, over alleged Kosovo land scam

PRISTINA (Reuters) - Police in Kosovo arrested six people as part of an investigation into an alleged land scam that cost the state 30 million euros ($34 million), European Union investigators said on Wednesday.

Azem Syla, a prominent legislator from the ruling party, was the alleged leader of the fraud which is believed to have involved 40 people, the EU police mission in Kosovo said.

Syla, a former leader of Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) guerrillas who fought Serb forces during the 1998-99 war to gain independence from Serbia, remains at large and police failed to find him during a 10-day search.

About 350 officers were involved and 42 locations were raided by police wearing masks. EU investigators were also involved in the biggest operation against crime in years.

“The investigation relates to a large-scale organized criminal group, active from 2006 to date, composed of Kosovo and Serbian citizens, and headed by Azem Syla,” the EU police and justice mission said in a statement.

“The case involves the criminal offences of organized crime; money laundering; abuse of official position; falsifying official documents and giving and receiving bribes.”

The probe involves officials and business people who bought and sold state-owned land in an industrial zone near the capital Pristina.

Participants in the scheme are alleged to have acquired the land cheaply before selling it for a large profit, depriving the state of 30 million euros in lost revenues.

Syla could not be reached for comment.

The EU police and justice mission, called EULEX, arrived in Kosovo in 2008, when the small Balkan country declared independence, to help fight organized crime and corruption, and to handle war crimes cases.

EULEX has faced criticism in Kosovo and outside for not doing enough to tackle crime and corruption in one of the poorest countries in Europe.

Efforts to investigate former fighters have often failed because clan loyalties run deep and KLA rebels are revered as heroes by Kosovo Albanians. Many entered government after the war.

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Editing by Adrian Croft and Ed Osmond