Kosovo ex-PM blames 'political persecution' for French arrest

Christian SPILLMANN
Former Kosovo prime minister Ramush Haradinaj says his detention in France, due to a decade-old arrest warrant, is hurting his chances in his country's legislative election

Former Kosovo prime minister Ramush Haradinaj says it is "political persecution" -- in the form of a Serbian arrest warrant -- which has kept him in France since January, and could torpedo his election ambitions back home.

In an interview with AFP on Sunday, the former rebel leader turned politician said he was "shocked" that France had complied with the warrant issued by Belgrade back in 2004, even though he has been cleared of war crimes since then by a UN court.

"This is not a prosecution," he said. "It's a persecution, a political persecution... because of my stand for an independent Kosovo."

"The demand for my extradition is unfounded," he added, speaking from a Strasbourg hotel where he is living while awaiting a court hearing scheduled for Thursday.

Haradinaj, 48, an ex-commander in the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army, was tried and acquitted in 2008 and 2012 by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), after allegations of crimes stemming from 1998.

But Serbia is pursuing separate charges of violence against Serbian civilians in Kosovo in June 1999.

- Sidelined in Kosovo politics -

French authorities released Haradinaj days after his January 4 arrest but ordered him to remain in the country awaiting a ruling on Serbia's request.

The popular lawmaker, an opponent of Kosovo President Hashim Thaci and a hardliner against a rapprochement with Belgrade, says the long wait may end up hurting his chances in future Kosovo elections.

"I'm missing my opportunity to be in the country in the job as a opposition leader. Everybody is campaigning in Kosovo except me," the head of the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo party said.

He said legislative elections could be held as early as June -- though the Pristina government has refused to consider an early vote and no date has been set.

Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008, becoming Europe's youngest state. Under Thaci, Pristina has undertaken halting talks to normalise ties with its Serbia.

Haradinaj, who opposes a 2013 agreement between the countries, accused Serbia of playing up tensions with Kosovo for its own political reasons, and called for "a new framework, with clear goals".

"Kosovo wants recognition, reciprocity. We can't continue on a dialogue with confusion," he said, alluding to Belgrade's refusal to recognise Kosovo as an independent state.

Haradinaj said that he doubted France would decide on his extradition on Thursday, saying it could take "two weeks or more" -- but that he did not think the court would end up sending him to Belgrade to stand trial.

"I was acquitted by the international court. I had the chance to travel in several countries in Europe... and in the USA. Nobody respected this [arrest] order."

Slovenia arrested Haradinaj in 2015 over the Serbian arrest warrant but released him because he had diplomatic immunity.