Kosovo Rebels Face Murder Charges in War Crimes Court

Seventeen former Kosovo rebels went on trial Wednesday before the Serbian war crimes court, charged with murder, rape and torture of Serb civilians in 1999.

Nine of the men were arrested in December in a predominantly Albanian-populated region of Serbia bordering Kosovo. Eight of the suspects are at large and were accused in absentia.

The indictment accuses the men of the kidnapping of 153 Serbs and the deaths of at least 80 of them in the eastern Kosovo town of Gnjilane following Kosovo's war for independence.

They are charged with "murder, rape, detention, mutilation, torture and looting," the indictment said. The charges carry up to 20 years in jail.

Bruno Vekaric, the spokesman for Serbia's war crimes prosecution, said the trial brings with it a "high risk" of retaliation by Albanians against the Serbs and other witnesses who still live in the region.

The war in Kosovo — then a province of Serbia — began with an ethnic Albanian separatist rebellion and ended after a 78-day NATO bombing campaign that forced Serbia's army and police to pull out of Kosovo.

After the war ended, the suspects allegedly launched retaliatory attacks against the Serb minority in Kosovo, where 90 percent of the population is ethnic Albanian.

Kosovo's independence has been recognized by many countries including the U.S. and most EU states — but not by Serbia or Russia.

In a related development, Serbian police said they found a large weapons cache in the tense south of the country near the border with Macedonia.

Interior Minister Ivica Dacic, who heads the police, said Wednesday the weapons included two rocket launchers, anti-tank mines, 16 grenades, a machine gun and ammunition.

Dacic said the weapons were discovered in a pit on state property about 300 yards from the Macedonian border.

Serbia's south, which borders Macedonia and Kosovo, was the scene of an ethnic Albanian rebellion in 2000-2001. The unrest ended in a peace plan but tensions have simmered since.