January 12, 2018 / 12:07 PM / in a year

EU tells Kosovo relations will suffer if it scraps war crimes court

PRISTINA (Reuters) - The European Union warned Kosovo on Friday that its relations with the bloc will suffer if it scraps a war crimes court linked to its bloody independence struggle.

The EU’s message, echoing one by the United States last month, came amid uncertainty as to whether Kosovo’s parliament will put a vote on the court back on its agenda next week after shelving it on Dec. 22 under U.S. and EU pressure.

“This initiative, still pending before the Kosovo parliament, is of extreme concern to the EU and its member states,” the EU office in Pristina said in a statement. “This would adversely impact Kosovo relations with the EU.”

Envoys from Germany and France arrived in Pristina this week to try to lobby Kosovo leaders to drop any move to abolish the Specialist Chamber set up in 2015 to try ex-Kosovo Liberation Army guerrillas alleged to have committed atrocities in the 1998-99 war that led to independence from Serbia.

It has yet to hear any cases.

Kosovo media have said the court, based abroad in The Hague, could indict or call as witnesses some current government officials. It was set up in the Netherlands to minimize the risk of witness intimidation and judicial corruption.

Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj, President Hashim Thaci and parliamentary speaker Kadri Veseli are former KLA commanders.

The court’s judges and prosecutors are foreigners, but authorities in Kosovo have jurisdiction as it was established under Kosovo law.

The United States told Pristina last month the overwhelmingly ethnic Albanian country in the western Balkans would face “isolation” if it abolished the court.

Washington is Kosovo’s staunchest ally but the European Union’s warning also carries weight as the small, impoverished nation hopes for eventual closer ties to the wealthy bloc.

NATO air strikes on Serbia forced it to withdraw troops from Kosovo in 1999 and the U.S.-led alliance keeps 5,000 soldiers there to maintain a fragile peace. More than 100 countries, but not Serbia, recognized Kosovo’s independence in 2008.

Between 10,000 and 12,000 people, mainly ethnic Albanians, were killed in the conflict between the KLA and security forces loyal to then-nationalist Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. A small Serb minority remains in Kosovo.

Reporting by Fatos Bytyci; editing by Mark Heinrich

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