Kosovo’s President Hashim Thaci and nine other people have been indicted by a court investigating war crimes committed during and after Kosovo’s independence war with Serbia.
A statement issued on Wednesday by the Special Prosecutor’s Office (SPO) in The Hague, the Netherlands, said Thaci and the others suspects were “criminally responsible for nearly 100 murders” of Kosovar Albanian, Serb and Roma people.
Other charges include enforced disappearance, persecution and torture.
The indictment is “the result of a lengthy investigation and reflects the SPO’s determination that it can prove all of the charges beyond a reasonable doubt,” the office said in a statement.
Thaci commanded fighters in the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) during the 1998-1999 war.
The indicted group also includes Kadri Veseli, former Parliament speaker and leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Kosovo.
Thaci was preparing for a summit at the White House on Saturday with Serbian counterpart, Aleksandar Vucic, and local media reports suggested he had already left for the US.
But US special envoy to Serbia and Kosovo Richard Grenell, who organised the White House meeting, said in a tweet that Thaci had cancelled going to the summit following the charges in The Hague.
“I respect his decision not to attend the discussions until the legal issues of those allegations are settled,” Grenell said, adding talks will now go ahead with Kosovo’s new Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti, who has moved to ease friction with Serbia.
The President of Kosovo has just informed us that he has canceled his trip to Washington, D.C. following the announcement made by the Special Prosecutors Office.
I respect his decision not to attend the discussions until the legal issues of those allegations are settled.
— Richard Grenell (@RichardGrenell) June 24, 2020
‘A surprise to many in Kosovo’
Reporting from Pristina, Al Jazeera’s Avni Ahmetaj said Thaci has been confronted many times in the past regarding allegations of war crimes but has always denied any wrongdoing.
“The news came as a surprise to many in Kosovo,” Ahmetaj said. “[KLA veterans] say the KLA did not commit any crimes, that they were defending their families during the war and the only army that committed war crimes during the war in 1999 was the Serbian army.”
The indictment issued on Wednesday was the first by the special tribunal based in The Hague. The court has been operating since 2015 and has questioned hundreds of witnesses.
According to the statement, the indictment is being reviewed by a pretrial judge who will decide whether to confirm the charges.
The prosecutor accused Thaci and Veseli of repeated efforts “to obstruct and undermine the work” of the tribunal.
“Thaci and Veseli are believed to have carried out a secret campaign to overturn the law creating the Court and otherwise obstruct the work of the Court in an attempt to ensure that they do not face justice,” the statement said.
“By taking these actions, Mr. Thaci and Mr. Veseli have put their personal interests ahead of the victims of their crimes, the rule of law, and all people of Kosovo,” it added.
Bekim Blakaj of the Humanitarian Law Centre in Pristina told Al Jazeera that the pretrial judge has six months to confirm or reject the charges, adding the announcement is unusual as “so far we haven’t seen such a practice that the SPO issues such a statement before the indictment is confirmed”.
The war left more than 10,000 dead and 1,641 are still unaccounted for. It ended after a 78-day NATO air raid.
Serbia does not recognise Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence. Serbia and Kosovo have been engaged in European Union-brokered negotiations since 2011 to normalise relations as a condition for bloc membership.