16 November 2006

Kosovo PM shrugs off Serb charges, protests

Agence France Presse, Friday November 3, 04:31 PM By Bozo Milicic


PODGORICA (AFP) - Kosovo's Prime Minister Agim Ceku, whom Belgrade accuses of war crimes, on Friday brushed aside the charges during an official visit to Serbia's former partner Montenegro.


"My conscience is clear and I'm proud of my military career," Ceku said on the visit, which sparked protests by Montenegro's Serb minority.


"I say with full responsibility that I have never ordered any crime to be committed, that I have never seen or committed a crime, so there is no basis for me to be treated as a criminal," he told a press conference.


Ceku, a former military commander in wars against Serbs in Croatia in 1991-1995 and Kosovo in 1998-1999, made the comments on his first official visit to Montenegro since it broke away from a union with Serbia.


Belgrade, which accuses Ceku of committing war crimes against its people, declined to comment on the matter Friday.


But the Kosovo Albanian leader's visit to its former federation partner is likely to anger the government of moderate nationalist Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica.


The visit came just weeks ahead of a decision on the future status of Kosovo, whose ethnic-Albanian majority are also seeking independence from Serbia, a demand Belgrade staunchly opposes.


"I hope that the issue of Kosovo will be solved during this year," said Ceku, speaking in perfect Serbo-Croatian.


"I am sure that the outcome will be an independent Kosovo with all guarantees for national minorities, with the help of the international community," he said.


Kosovo formally remains under Serbian sovereignty but is expected to win a form of independence from Belgrade by the end of the year.


The disputed southern province has been run by the United Nations since mid-1999, following NATO bombing that drove out Serbian forces over a brutal crackdown against its independence-seeking ethnic Albanians.


The visit by Ceku was made at the invitation of Montenegro's outgoing Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, who for his part described it as "very important for the region and bilateral cooperation between Montenegro and Kosovo".


Serbian analyst Zoran Stojilkovic told AFP that he found the lack of a reaction from Belgrade unsurprising.


"Ever since Montenegro proclaimed independence, Serbia has kept its eyes wide shut towards anything going on there. I suppose this is the same method it will use in regard to this visit," said Stojilkovic.


The visit sparked protests in the Montenegrin capital Podgorica by several dozen Serbs, who criticised their leader's decision to invite him.


"Djukanovic has delivered a blow not only to some 200,000 citizens of Montenegro who consider themselves Serbs, but also to the Serbian leadership and the people of Serbia after the adoption of the new constitution" that declares Kosovo an integral part of the country, Andrija Mandic, leader of the opposition Serbian People's Party, told the rally.


"It seems that Ceku is coming in a sort of pay-off for Montenegro's Albanians' support for Montenegrin independence," said Ranko Kadic of the opposition Democratic Serbian Party.


Djukanovic, who is soon due to step down after 17 years in power and after leading his former Yugoslav republic to independence in June, responded by saying the Serb protestors' reaction was that of "an old, autistic conscience".


"By holding these talks, we do not cause any harm to Serbia. Montenegro's most important interest is to build bridges of cooperation. Serbia remains our partner," he said.


Ceku was elected Kosovo's prime minister in March last year


Serbia then urged the United Nations mission in Kosovo to reject his nomination, saying it was "deeply concerned" about the issue.


"We have warned them and we expect that the election of Ceku would be prevented," Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said at the time.


Belgrade said in March that its justice authorities had launched an investigation into Ceku for alleged war crimes and issued an "international arrest warrant" against him.


He had previously been indicted by Serbia in 2002.