PRISTINA, Serbia-Montenegro – Kosovo's (search) former prime minister flew out of the province Wednesday to face war crimes charges at a U.N.-run court in The Hague (search), Netherlands, for his alleged part in atrocities during ethnic Albanians' fight against Serb forces.
Ramush Haradinaj (search), 36, boarded a special flight from Pristina's airport a day after resigning from the post as the province's prime minister following an indictment by the war crimes court.
Neither Haradinaj, a former commander of the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army, nor court officials gave any details of the specific charges against him.
Serbian officials accuse him of command responsibility in the alleged killing of Serb civilians by the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army forces in 1998 close to his home village of Glodjanje. They also spoke of the rape of several Roma women and the killing of some Roma men — all part of a wedding party — by his forces shortly after the war near the town of Djakovica.
Several hundred people were at the airport to see Haradinaj depart. Two other ethnic Albanian former rebels also accused by the court were to travel with him.
International officials praised Haradinaj — a seasoned battlefield commander with a fiery temper and a loyal following — for his decision to cooperate with the court and called on other countries in the region to follow his example.
NATO peacekeepers were out in force throughout the province Wednesday, after an additional 1,000 troops were flown in to prevent any violence or unrest by Kosovo's ethnic Albanians, who view Haradinaj as a hero.
The top U.S. general in the province also praised his decision and urged calm.
"We fully expect the current environment to remain calm and stable," said Brig. Gen. William H. Wade, who heads some 1,700 U.S. peacekeepers serving in the NATO force. "Violence will not be tolerated and will set back the process toward settling Kosovo's future."
The United Nations, which administers this disputed province, advised their nonessential staff to stay home as a precaution in the western part of Kosovo, where Haradinaj is from.
Hundreds of students protested peacefully overnight in the capital. Otherwise, the situation throughout Kosovo remained calm.
Haradinaj, who faced reporters Tuesday to announce his plan to resign and fly to The Hague voluntarily, said his decision to face justice was a sacrifice he had to make for the sake of Kosovo's future.
"Today I have been called upon to make a sacrifice, something I never believed would happen," he said in a statement. "This means also cooperation with international justice, however unjust it is."
Proclaiming his innocence, Haradinaj said his actions as an ethnic Albanian rebel commander during the 1989-99 war against Serb forces were consistent with international law.
"I have behaved like an honorable man," he said.
Kosovo still seethes with ethnic tensions nearly six years after the end of the 1998-99 war between Serbs and ethnic Albanians, and the decision to charge Haradinaj raised concerns of renewed violence.
While the ethnic Albanian majority considers Haradinaj a hero in the struggle for independence from Serb rule, most of the Serb minority hate him and other former KLA leaders.
Kosovo, which officially remains a province of Serbia-Montenegro, has been administered by the United Nations and NATO since 1999, following the alliance's war to halt a crackdown by Serb troops on the rebels.
Its majority ethnic Albanian population wants independence, whereas the Serb minority insists the province should remain part of Serbia.