French court refuses to extradite Kosovo's ex-PM to Serbia

Arnaud Bouvier with Jovan Matic in Belgrade
Controversial former guerrilla leader Ramush Haradinaj could end up as Kosovo's prime minister for a second time after Sunday's election

A French court rejected a request from Serbia to extradite Kosovo's former prime minister Ramush Haradinaj over accusations of war crimes committed in the 1990s, sparking outrage in Belgrade.

Haradinaj, 48, was arrested by French police on January 4 when he flew into the Franco-Swiss airport of Basel-Mulhouse, but was freed to return home following Thursday's decision by the court in Colmar, eastern France.

The ruling was welcomed by authorities in Kosovo but slammed in Belgrade by Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, who said Serbia's ambassador to France would be recalled for consultations.

Haradinaj, an ex-commander in the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), has already been tried and acquitted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia over allegations of war crimes committed in 1998 during the Kosovo conflict.

But Belgrade issued an international arrest warrant over separate charges of violence against Serbian civilians in Kosovo in June 1999.

The French court ruled that extradition to Serbia would lead to "consequences of exceptional gravity" for the accused.

- 'Rambo' -

The 1998-1999 conflict pitted the pro-independence KLA rebels against the forces of late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic.

A predominantly ethnic Albanian province, Kosovo unilaterally declared independence a decade after the war, a move since recognised by more than 100 countries but not by Belgrade or its ally Russia.

Haradinaj -- known as "Rambo" for his stocky build and military prowess -- is considered a hero by many at home for his role in the fight for sovereignty.

He received a hero's welcome later Thursday upon his return to Kosovo's capital Pristina, where he was greeted by thousands of people waving Kosovo and Albanian flags as folk music bands played.

Thousands of ethnic Albanians had protested in Pristina and other cities against his arrest, while hundreds of his supporters greeted him with cheers outside the French court earlier on Thursday.

"I have not been alone all this time," Haradinaj told the crowd in downtown Pristina. He said of the ruling that "this decision gives me the opportunity to continue with my political obligations".

A lawmaker who briefly served as premier from 2004 and now leads an opposition party, Haradinaj told AFP in an interview this month that he was the victim of "political persecution".

The court, however, rejected the claim that the Serbian request was political in character.

At a hearing in Colmar in February, prosecutor Patrick Steinmetz described abuses in 1999 in which Haradinaj is accused of participating.

"There were people whose children were beaten before their eyes, so much so that they remained paralysed," he said.

- Tensions stoked -

Haradinaj's detention heightened tensions between Belgrade and Pristina, which began European Union-brokered talks back in 2011 to "normalise" their relations.

Prime Minister Vucic said Thursday's ruling was "a great victory for criminals".

The Serbian government "considers that the decision of the court is shameful, scandalous, contrary to the law and deeply unjust -- and that it is above all political," he told reporters in Belgrade.

Serbia's foreign ministry said it had handed in an official note to French ambassador in Belgrade, protesting the decision.

Meanwhile in Kosovo, President Hashim Thaci welcomed the French court's decision as "good news".

In a Facebook post, he described it as proof that the "slanders" of Serbia's intelligence services against the KLA were "not valid and not taken into consideration by the democratic world".

The public prosecutor in Colmar has five days to lodge an appeal.

Before Thursday's decision, Haradinaj had been released on bail but told he could not leave France while he awaited the ruling.

He said he was missing an opportunity to fulfil his role as an opposition leader, saying "everybody is campaigning in Kosovo except me".

No date has been scheduled for elections but there is wide speculation that a snap vote will be held in Kosovo in coming months.

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