Kosovo Ex-Guerillas on Run After Escape

After three former Kosovo Liberation Army guerrillas accused of war crimes during the 1990s conflict went on the run, the Justice Ministry has blamed EULEX for allowing their escape.

The Ministry of Justice said the EU rule-of-law mission, EULEX, was at fault for not preventing the escape of three former KLA fighters due to go on trial in the so-called “Drenica case”.

‘EULEX had competencies over the case of the so called ‘Drenica Group based on the exclusive competencies for alleged war crimes it has under Kosovo laws,’ the ministry said on Wednesday.

Former Kosovo Liberation Army fighters Sami Lushtaku, Ismet Haxha and Sahit Jashari absconded from the University Clinic Centre in Pristina on Tuesday after refusing to be transferred to a prison in the northern city of Mitrovica.

Prison authorities in Dubrava refused to transfer the defendants to Mitrovica saying it could be dangerous because two high-profile Serbs are being held there.

Kosovo Serb politician Oliver Ivanovic and retired police colonel Dragoljub Delibasic are in custody in the Mitrovica jail over allegations of involvement in war crimes during the fighting between ethnic Albanian rebels and Belgrade forces in 1999, as well as in killings that took place after the Kosovo conflict ended.

Seven ex-KLA guerillas had been in detention on remand since last May and were initially held in the Dubrava Prison in the Peja/Pec region before being transferred to the Pristina clinic for treatment several weeks ago.

The main trial of the “Drenica Group” case was scheduled to start on Thursday at the Basic Court in the northern part of the divided town of Mitrovica.

However, only four defendants have arrived in Mitrovica at the first hearing, while others remained at large.

“We reiterate that the rule of law is not negotiable and is the cornerstone of any democratic society,” EULEX said in a press announcement after the trial.

Although the EULEX prosecutor, Jonathan Ratel, was spotted on Tuesday near the Pristina clinic, the mission denied it was negotiating with the defendants on the conditions for their planned transfer.

The Humanitarian Law Center in Kosovo has urged the authorities ‘to find and arrest the accused as soon as possible in order to prevent potential negotiations over a court ruling’.

The center also asked for an inquiry in order ‘to find and penalise the people or structures that allowed or did not prevent the escape of the accused’.

The Kosovo Police said it had increased control measures at the border crossing points, the national airport and the Pristina clinic.

Meanwhile, over 50 supporters of ex-KLA guerillas staged a protest asking EULEX to withdraw its decision for transferring the detainees to a prison in the Serb-dominated northern part of Kosovo.

Smajl Elezaj from the War Veterans Association described the decision as ‘unjust’.

‘There is no security on the north. We want the decision to be withdrawn but this has not been done. That’s why we are here to disable their arrest and to support them and their families’, he said.

Lushtaku, the mayor of Skenderaj/Srbice, and the two other men, all KLA fighters from the wartime guerrilla cell known as the Drenica Group, are charged with torturing and mistreating prisoners at a KLA detention centre in Likovc/Likovac in 1998.

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