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Former Kosovo Prime Minister Goes on Trial for War Crimes

The trial for Kosovo's former prime minister, Ramush Haradinaj, has begun at the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. He is accused of mounting an ethnic-cleansing campaign against Serbs in 1998. His trial, along with two other former commanders of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), occurs as tensions mount in Kosovo over the uncertain future of the U.N.-administered region. Lauren Comiteau reports from Amsterdam.

Chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte acknowledged that this trial of three top KLA commanders takes place against the backdrop of "historic negotiations" on the future of Kosovo. But she told the court there is nothing political about this case. She said it is a criminal case against what she called a warlord, his lieutenant, and his jailer.

"Your honors, there was nothing noble or heroic about the crimes in this case. There was nothing patriotic or virtuous about them. They were brutal and bloody murders. These three accused were gangsters in uniform and in control. And as the trial chamber will see, that proved to be a sinister and deadly combination for the victims in this case," she said.

Former Prime Minister Haradinaj and the two of his subordinates who are charged with him, Idriz Balaj and Lahi Brahimaj, say they are innocent. Mr. Haradinaj even says he is "very offended" by the charges.

But prosecutors say they committed "despicable" and unspeakably brutal crimes against humanity, and war crimes in order to silence their critics and anyone else who did not support their cause of Kosovo liberation, from ethnic Serbs to Kosovo Roma to perceived Albanian collaborators.

Ms. Del Ponte said it has not been an easy case to bring because of resistance on both the local and international level.

She also squabbled with presiding Judge Alphons Orie about the problems her office is having protecting its witnesses.

"I am just informing the court that this weekend I received information about threats that a witness has received now," said Del Ponte.

"I wonder why I could not inform the court about an event, about a fact, that occurred during the weekend, that is directly related to this trial. Because Mr. President, if I have no witnesses appearing in court, I will be obliged to withdraw this indictment," she added.

That first witness will testify, but under protective measures.

She told prosecutors she has been receiving "sinister" phone calls threatening her family. It has been reported that other potential witnesses have already withdrawn.

More than a third of the prosecutor's expected 100 witnesses have been granted protective measures.

This week, Serbia and Kosovo Albanians will receive an amended version of a U.N. plan on Kosovo's future, one that virtually grants the province independence in everything but name. Serbia, which wants to hold on to Kosovo at all costs, opposes the plan, while Kosovo Albanians want nothing short of full independence.

Before returning to The Hague last week for trial, Mr. Haradinaj, who is still a powerful politican, appealed for calm in Kosovo, where recent violence has left leaders nervous.