Possible visit by Kosovo's Thaci puts old foe Serbia in a bind

Reuters News
Posted: Apr 16, 2015 8:47 AM

By Fatos Bytyci and Matt Robinson

PRISTINA/BELGRADE (Reuters) - Kosovo Foreign Minister Hashim Thaci, who led a guerrilla insurgency against Serbia, hopes to pay a landmark visit to Belgrade next week for a conference, an adviser said on Thursday, despite calls for his arrest.

Serbian politicians have long branded Thaci a war criminal for his role in Kosovo's 1998-99 conflict.

He was sentenced in absentia to 10 years in jail for "terrorism" by Serbia in 1997, but just over a decade later he oversaw Kosovo's declaration of independence and for years has been involved in European Union-mediated negotiations aimed at settling relations with Belgrade.

Just last month, Thaci shared coffee and a joke with his Serbian counterpart, Ivica Dacic, in Pristina. But Belgrade likes to keep Thaci at arm's length, and the government will almost certainly face calls from Serbian nationalists for his arrest if he tries to attend the April 24 conference in Belgrade organized by a civil society group.

His presence may require a major security operation.

"Thaci has received the invitation and is ready to go," Ardian Arifaj, an adviser to the foreign minister, told Reuters. "Now it depends on the Belgrade authorities whether Thaci will go or not."

Serbia's war crimes prosecutor, Vladimir Vukcevic, said that a further war crimes investigation against Thaci had been on hold as he was out of reach of the Serbian authorities. But, Vukcevic was quoted as telling the Serbian daily Blic, "if he comes here we can arrest him."

Vukcevic's office declined to comment to Reuters. Thaci's arrest, though highly unlikely, would represent a major diplomatic incident and anger the EU, which both Serbia and Kosovo want to join.

Thaci was a leader of the guerrilla Kosovo Liberation Army, which took up arms in the late 1990s after a decade of passive resistance to Serbian rule by Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority.

Late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic's forces began a counter-insurgency war, and NATO launched air strikes against Serbia to halt massacres and expulsions of ethnic Albanian civilians.

Thaci is invited to a regional conference on reconciliation organized by the Belgrade-based Youth Education Committee.

Dacic, Serbia's foreign minister, told reporters: "I don't think there's any need for him to come."

(Additional reporting by Ivana Sekularac; Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Andrew Roche)