01 April 2006

Serbia warns UN to reject ex-rebel chief as Kosovo PM

AFP03 mars 2006 16:57


BELGRADE, March 3, 2006 (AFP)


Serbia on Friday warned the head of the UN mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) to prevent a former ethnic Albanian rebel commander who Belgrade accuses of war crimes from becoming the province's prime minister.


Belgrade said in a statement it was "deeply concerned" with Agim Ceku's nomination, and pressed UNMIK chief Soren Jessen-Petersen to "use the authority given to him by the UN Security Council resolution 1244 and prevent the election".


"We have warned them and we expect that the election of Ceku would be prevented," Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica told reporters later.


Under UN Security Council resolution 1244, Kosovo was put under UN administration in mid-1999 after NATO's air war drove out forces loyal to former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic over a crackdown against separatist Albanian rebels.


In its statement, the Serbia government said local justice authorities had launched a new investigation into Ceku for war crimes allegedly committed during Kosovo's 1998-1999 conflict and issued an "international arrest warrant" against him. He had previously been indicted by Serbia in 2002.


Ceku was made Kosovo's prime minister-designate on Thursday, with his nomination receiving backing from local politicians and senior international community representatives in the disputed UN-run province.


It came a day after Bajram Kosumi resigned from the post under strong political pressure.


Ceku's nomination has caused anger in Belgrade and among Kosovo's Serb minority following Serbian allegations in 2002 that he had committed war crimes against Serbs in Croatia's 1991-1995, as well as in Kosovo.


"It is fully unacceptable for the government of Serbia that a man who should be tried for war crimes can be elected for any political function," the government's spokesman, Srdjan Djuric, said Thursday.


"There is no prime minister indicted for war crimes nowadays in Europe, and probably in the whole world," Djuric said.


Ceku's nomination came just days before the resumption of the UN-backed talks on the future status of Kosovo -- a province of Serbia whose ethnic Albanian majority is seeking independence -- slated for March 17 in Vienna.


The UN special envoy in the delicate talks, Martti Ahtisaari, said he believed the political changes "will not affect" the negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo's Albanian leaders.


"I hope that the changes would only accelerate the process. We have no time to lose," Ahtisaari told journalists in the provincial capital Pristina at the end of three days of talks in Kosovo.


"I hope we can proceed with the speed I want to carry out this exerise and I have been assured that the government will fully cooperate with us," said the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize candidate.


The next meeting from March 17 would tackle "cultural and religious heritage, minority rights and economy," said Ahtisaari.


"Whatever the status might be, these are the issues that have to be discussed," he said.


The negotiations will ultimately determine whether Kosovo becomes independent of Serbia, as demanded by its Albanian population of almost two million, or remains part of the former Yugoslav republic, the option backed by Belgrade and the province's tiny Serb minority.


Kosovo's political turmoil is believed to be a scramble to fill the void left by late president Ibrahim Rugova, who died in January and whose strong leadership was seen as crucial in the UN-mediated talks.


Its parliament is expected to endorse Ceku's candidacy next week, but the process has been complicated after the assembly's speaker, Nexhat Daci, decided to contest his party's decision to dismiss him from the post on Wednesday, the same day Kosumi resigned as prime minister.


The vote was seen as a formality because Ceku is expected to win the support of Kosumi's Alliance for the Future of Kosovo party, which holds the post of prime minister under an agreement within Kosovo's ruling coalition government.