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First Kosovo war crimes suspect in court

1 min 27Approximate reading time

A former separatist commander became the first person to appear before an international court probing Kosovo's 1990s independence war on Monday, facing charges including murder and torture.

Salih Mustafa, 48, a senior member of the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) during the 1998-9 conflict, was arrested last week and transferred to the Kosovo Specialist Chambers based in The Hague.

Mustafa is charged with the arbitrary detention, cruel treatment and torture of at least six civilians at a detention compound in Zllash, Kosovo in April 1999, and the murder of one prisoner.

The court was set up in 2015 to probe alleged atrocities by the KLA, whose guerrillas fought for the independence of Kosovo from Serbia.

Removing a mask that he was required to wear because of coronavirus measures, Mustafa spoke to confirm his personal details including that he is now an adviser in the Kosovo defence ministry.

Asked by judge Nicolas Guillou if he wanted to plead guilty or not guilty during his first appearance before the court, Mustafa replied: "I won't enter a plea today, I will consult my lawyer."

The judge said Mustafa would have "ample opportunity to challenge the charges" when the case gets fully underway later, and adjourned the hearing until early next week.

The victims were accused of being spies, collaborating with Serbian forces or of not cooperating with the KLA, according to the indictment against Mustafa.

They were subjected to torture including "beatings with various instruments, burning and the administration of electric shocks", it said.

More than 13,000 people died in the Kosovo conflict, which ended when late Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic's forces withdrew after an 11-week NATO bombing campaign.

The court's activities are highly sensitive as former rebel commanders still dominate political life in Kosovo.

The court indicted Kosovo President Hashim Thaci in June for his alleged role in nearly 100 murders during the 1998-89 conflict while he led the KLA.

He was questioned at the tribunal in July over the charges which he said "rewrite history", but he has not formally been arrested.

Two other people were arrested by the court last week on charges of leaking information that could expose protected witnesses.

International tensions over Kosovo remain to this day, with the US and most of the West recognising Kosovo, while Belgrade and its allies Russia and China do not.

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