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War Crimes Suspect Set to Become Kosovo Prime Minister

A former ethnic Albanian guerilla commander who is under investigation for war crimes is set to become prime minister of the troubled Serbian province of Kosovo. The appointment has been condemned by the Belgrade government, Kosovo's Serb minority and Western diplomats.

Despite international and Serbian criticism, the former regional leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army, Ramus Haradinaj, has said he is determined to lead a coalition government made up of his Alliance for the Future of Kosovo party and the province's largest political grouping, the Democratic League of Kosovo.

The announced agreement between the two parties follows parliamentary elections in October in which the Democratic League of Kosovo, led by President Ibrahim Rugova won 47 seats in the 120-member assembly, 14 short of a majority. Mr. Haradinaj's party, which won just nine seats in the election, said it would only join the coalition if its leader becomes prime minister.

Two other smaller parties are likely to join the cabinet to ensure a parliamentary majority.

The announcement coincides with media reports that Mr. Haradinaj may soon be indicted by the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague for alleged atrocities in the 1998-99 war against Serb forces. He was interrogated by U.N. court investigators for several days last week. Serbia's President Boris Tadic was quoted by local media as saying that the prime ministerial appointment is therefore "absolutely unacceptable and could destabilize the whole region."

Western diplomats who spoke to reporters seem to agree. They say the expected appointment of Mr. Haradinaj could overshadow final status talks on the future of Kosovo, which were scheduled to begin next year under international supervision.

The province of two million people has been under U.N. administration, backed by international peacekeepers, since 1999, when 78 days of NATO bombardments forced Serb troops to end a crackdown against independence-seeking ethnic Albanians.

While Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority still wants independence, its small Serb minority prefers to remain part of Serbia, the dominant republic of what is now known as Serbia and Montenegro.

Representatives of Serbs in Kosovo, have warned that if Mr. Haradinaj becomes prime minister, it could fuel ethnic tensions in the volatile province, where inter-ethnic fighting in March killed at least 19 people and left an estimated 2,000 homeless.

The vice-president of the Democratic Party of Serbia, Marko Jaksic, has reportedly said that Mr. Haradinaj is an obstacle to any kind of dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia.

However the U.N. administrator for Kosovo, Soren Jessen-Petersen, has refused to rule out the appointment. News reports quote him as saying: "If I say no to this candidate, I would be saying no to democracy."