Serbia warned yesterday (16 April) it would arrest the foreign minister of its former province of Kosovo Hashim Thaçi for alleged terrorism if he turns up in Belgrade next week to attend a conference, which ironically is dedicated to the reconciliation following the Yugoslav wars.
Thaçi, who led a guerrilla insurgency against Serbia in the late 1990s, has been invited to the conference on reconciliation in the Serbian capital on April 24 and is “ready to go”, an adviser said earlier.
“If he turns up in Belgrade, the Ministry of Interior will act according to the law and bring him to justice,” Serbia’s Tanjug state news agency quoted Interior Minister Nebojša Stefanovi? as saying.
Serbian politicians have long branded Thaçi a war criminal for his role in Kosovo’s 1990s conflict.
He was sentenced in absentia to 10 years in jail for “terrorism” by Serbia in 1997.
Thaçi was a leader of the guerrilla Kosovo Liberation Army, which took up arms in the late 1990s after a decade of passive resistance to Serbian rule by Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority.
Serbian forces began a counter-insurgency war, and NATO launched air strikes against Serbia in 1999 to halt massacres and expulsions of ethnic Albanian civilians.
In 2008, Thaçi oversaw Kosovo’s declaration of independence, and for years has been involved in European Union-mediated negotiations aimed at settling relations with Belgrade.
Just last month, he shared coffee and a joke with his Serbian counterpart, Ivica Da?i?, in Pristina.
Thaçi has been invited to the regional conference on reconciliation in Belgrade organised by the Belgrade-based Youth Education Committee.
One of his advisers, Ardian Arifaj, told Reuters: “Thaçi has received the invitation and is ready to go. Now it depends on the Belgrade authorities whether Thaçi will go or not.”
His arrest would create a major diplomatic incident and anger the EU, which has invested much capital in trying to improve relations between Serbia and Kosovo, both of which want to join the bloc.
Serbia’s war crimes prosecutor, Vladimir Vuk?evi? said a further war crimes investigation against Thaçi had been on hold, as he was out of reach of the Serbian authorities.
But Vuk?evi? was quoted as telling the Serbian daily Blic: “if he comes here, we can arrest him.”
Kosovo seceded from Serbia in 2008, nine years after the end of a 1998-1999 war between Belgrade's security forces and ethnic Albanian guerrillas. In the following years, Kosovo was an international protectorate patrolled by NATO peacekeepers.
After Kosovo declared independence in February 2008, the two million-strong republic, 90% of whose population are ethnic Albanians, established many of the trappings of statehood, including a new constitution, army, national anthem, flag, passports, identity cards and an intelligence agency.
However, the Serbian-populated northern part of Kosovo (the area of Mitrovica) remains largely outside the control of Pristina.
Most EU countries, except Spain, Greece, Romania, Cyprus and Slovakia, have recognised the independence of Kosovo. Of all UN members, 110 have recognised Kosovo so far.
In December 2008, the EU deployed a rule of law mission, dubbed EULEX Kosovo, with the intention of taking over post-crisis management in the territory. The aim of the operation is to assist and support the Kosovo authorities with the rule of law, specifically regarding the police, the judiciary and customs.
The EULEX mission is the largest EU civilian mission ever launched. The 3,000-member operation has the power to take on cases that the local judiciary and police are unable to handle.