Kosovo imams arrested in push to stop fighters going to Syria, Iraq

PRISTINA (Reuters) - At least nine imams were among 15 people arrested in Kosovo on Wednesday in the second major operation in weeks to try to stem the flow of young ethnic Albanians joining Islamist fighters in Iraq and Syria.

A police source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Reuters the 15 faced charges including “terrorism, threatening the constitutional order, incitement and religious hate speech”.

In the last such operation on Aug. 11, 40 people were arrested on suspicion of fighting in Iraq and Syria or recruiting insurgents.

Police said among the imams arrested was an influential Muslim cleric from the Grand Mosque in the capital Pristina. Another was the leader of an Islamic-rooted political party.

“The majority of those arrested are imams of different mosques belonging to the Islamic Community of Kosovo,” police spokesperson Baki Kelani said.

Most of Kosovo’s 1.8 million people are ethnic Albanian Muslims and lead largely secular lives.

But video of police officers arresting imams may fuel anger among the Islamic faithful in Kosovo and raise questions about religious freedoms. The officers wore black masks to protect their identities in case of reprisals.

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A spokesman for the Islamic Community, that hires and pays imams, said: “No one is above the law and if there is proof that our employees have threatened the constitutional order then everyone is equal before the law.”

Fears of a creeping radicalization among their Muslim communities are stirring in other Balkan countries - such as Serbia and Bosnia - with dozens of their citizens also known to have joined Islamist fighters in the Middle East.

Intelligence officials in Kosovo believe between 100 and 200 Kosovars are fighting in Iraq and Syria, where Islamic State militants have seized swathes of land, drawing U.S. air strikes. At least 20 are reported to have been killed in the past year.

Landlocked and impoverished, Kosovo won independence from Serbia in 2008, almost a decade after a U.S.-led NATO air war drove out Serbian forces accused of killing and expelling Albanian civilians during a counter-insurgency campaign.

The United States ambassador in Kosovo, Tracey Jacobson, tweeted: “Once again I commend Kosovo on its proactive approach against foreign fighters and extremism.”

Editing by Matt Robinson and Louise Ireland