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Ex-Kosovo Leader Facing War Crimes Trial

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The Associated Press
Sunday, March 4, 2007; 2:11 PM

THE HAGUE, Netherlands -- Ramush Haradinaj, who was once a nightclub bouncer and martial arts expert and rose to become a guerrilla chieftain and Kosovo's prime minister, faces trial in which he is accused of mounting an ethnic cleansing campaign against Serbs.

His future will be decided by a panel of U.N. judges in the war crimes trial opening Monday in which he and two others are accused. They are pleading innocent, and many Kosovars believe it is their struggle against Serbian rule that is on trial.

Haradinaj flew to the Netherlands a week ago and was put in a cell in the Hague court's detention unit, where co-defendants Idriz Balaj and Lahi Brahimaj have been held since 2005. Hundreds of supporters saw him off, and Prime Minister Agim Ceku backed him in a radio address.

"He is going to the Hague not only to defend himself, but to defend our war for freedom," Ceku said. "We're convinced that truth and justice are on Ramush's side."

The trial deprives Kosovars of a charismatic leader at a time of rising violence as they edge toward the independence they fought for in 1998-1999, aided by Western bombing of Serbian targets.

Once seen as a stabilizing force in Kosovo, Haradinaj now faces a maximum life sentence if convicted by the U.N. Yugoslav tribunal.

His absence "is going to leave something of a hole here," says Alex Anderson of the International Crisis Group, a nongovernmental organization active in easing tensions in Kosovo.

Haradinaj served for 100 days as prime minister of U.N. administered Kosovo in 2005. Before that he was a senior commander in the Kosovo Liberation Army, at which time he allegedly was involved in a plot to expel Serbs and their suspected collaborators from a western Kosovo region by murder, maltreatment and rape.

At a pretrial hearing on Thursday he said he was "offended by these accusations" and declared his innocence.

Among Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority, "There is a huge defensiveness about 'our people' being tried. Every trial is looked at with a view of that trial being a struggle over the interpretation of the KLA war record," Anderson said in a telephone interview from his office in Pristina, the Kosovo capital.

Three other Kosovo Albanians have been prosecuted by the U.N. court _ two were acquitted and one convicted.

By coincidence, the latest trial is opening as a separate case continues in the same building of six senior Serbs charged with atrocities in Kosovo.

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