PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — Lawmakers in Kosovo cleared the way Wednesday for the creation of a European Union-backed court that will investigate crimes committed by ethnic Albanian rebels during the country's 1998-99 war of independence from Serbia.
The move, in an 89-22 vote, follows years of diplomatic pressure by the EU and United States for Kosovo to open a state investigation into civilian killings committed by the rebel side. Suspected crimes include the killing of about 400 civilians, chiefly Serbs, and allegations that a handful of victims were slain specifically to harvest their organs for sale on the black market.
The war crimes court, to be headquartered officially in Kosovo but conduct its work chiefly in the Netherlands, will be staffed by international judges and prosecutors. Many details of its powers and penalties remain to be agreed between Kosovo and EU authorities, but it is expected to operate along similar lines to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which has stopped taking new cases and is slated for eventual closure.
EU sponsorship of the new probe reflects the reality that many crimes from the rebel side of the Kosovo war have yet to be aired in court. A two-year investigation led by a U.S. prosecutor, expected to conclude in June, will form the basis for any indictments.
The rebels enjoyed NATO backing in a war that left about 10,000 dead and millions homeless. The West then staunchly supported Kosovo in its efforts to emerge from the conflict as an independent state. As Kosovo's statehood has settled, the ethnic Albanian majority has faced rising pressure to identify and punish their own war criminals.
Hashim Thaci, Kosovo's prime minister and the wartime rebel commander who has been linked in a 2010 EU report to the illegal trafficking of victims' organs, told lawmakers to support a bill that would permit the court's creation. Thaci said he expected the tribunal to vindicate his own position.
"Certain elements of the international community have put serious doubts on the integrity of our war," he said. "We must have faith that right is on our side, and this will again be proven by any court."
Also Wednesday, experts started excavating a mass grave in Serbia believed to contain at least 250 bodies of ethnic Albanians killed by Serbian security forces.
Associated Press reporter Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Serbia, contributed to this report.