November 27, 2012 / 2:38 PM / 6 years ago

Kosovo veterans demand release of chief charged with war crimes

PRISTINA (Reuters) - About 200 Kosovan former rebel fighters disrupted the launch of a motorway linking their country with Albania on Tuesday, demanding the release of a commander turned government minister who was arrested on war crimes charges last week.

The crowd, mostly Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) veterans, occupied the stage at the opening ceremony in Gjurgjica, central Kosovo, for two hours in a reminder of the fiercely nationalistic emotions that remain more than 13 years after the 1998-99 independence war against Serb forces.

“Today Kosovo will not celebrate until our comrades are released,” a protest organizer told the crowd.

A helicopter carrying Albanian Prime Minister Sali Berisha to the ceremony was turned back while his Kosovan counterpart Hashim Thaci failed to turn up, local media reported.

Former KLA commander Fatmir Limaj, one of Thaci’s closest political allies, was charged in 2011 with ordering the killing of two Serb captives and torturing another during the war at a prison close to where the motorway ceremony was staged.

Limaj, who went by the nom de guerre of Celik (Steel), was acquitted a year later. But Kosovo’s supreme court, made of a panel of local judges and the country’s European Union mission (EULEX), ordered a retrial and he was re-arrested on Saturday.

Kosovo Albanians, who make up more than 90 percent of Kosovo’s population, see KLA veterans as their liberators. Arrests of former soldiers have provoked angry protests in the past.

Limaj remains a prominent figure as a member of the Kosovo parliament and deputy leader of Thaci’s ruling Democratic Party, which led Kosovo to independence from Serbia in 2008.

Thaci criticised EULEX on Monday, calling Limaj’s re-arrest “unacceptable and shameful”. The EU representative in Kosovo Samuel Zbogar warned Kosovan politicians not to interfere in the judicial process.

Limaj is also facing corruption charges for the time he was a government minister from 2008 to 2010. He denies all charges.

The 60-km (37-mile) motorway, which gives landlocked Kosovo a faster exit to the Adriatic coast, was opened to traffic without a ceremony.

Reporting by Fatos Bytyci; Editing by Maja Zuvela and Andrew Heavens

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