Thousands of Kosovo Albanians Call for Ex-premier’s Release in France

Thousands of people protested Saturday in the Kosovo capital of Pristina to urge France to release their former prime minister who was detained there on a Serbian arrest warrant.

The protesters — mostly opposition party members and former guerrilla fighters of the 1998-1999 war for independence from Serbia — consider Ramush Haradinaj’s detention illegal.

Haradinaj, also a former guerrilla commander, was released by a French court, but he must stay in France under judicial supervision, pending a decision on whether to extradite him to Serbia.

Kosovo considers Haradinaj’s detention a political move from Belgrade, given that he has been twice cleared of war crimes charges by a U.N. tribunal.

Fatmir Limaj of the opposition Initiative for Kosovo party also said at the protest that Pristina should cancel talks with Belgrade brokered by the European Union to normalize their relations. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, but Belgrade has not recognized the move.

Haradinaj hailed the protest Saturday in his Facebook page.

“I understand your great unsparing support, all around the world, as a support for Kosovo’s freedom and existence,” he wrote.

Haradinaj’s detention in early January and Serbia’s effort days later to send a nationalist train to Kosovo’s northern Mitrovica region, where most of its Serb ethnic minority lives, have sparked a bilateral crisis and concern from the EU and the United States.

The train, with the slogan “Kosovo is Serbia” and decorated in the colors of the Serbian flag and with Christian Orthodox symbols, was turned back from the border with Kosovo.

Next week, the leaders of Kosovo and Serbia are expected to meet in Brussels, invited by the EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini.

Serbia, backed by Russia, has sought to maintain influence in Kosovo. NATO-led troops have controlled Kosovo’s territory since a three-month air war in 1999 to stop a bloody Serbian crackdown against ethnic Albanian separatists.

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