PRISTINA – The president of Kosovo, who served as a guerrilla leader during Kosovo's war for independence from Serbia in the late 1990s, resigned Thursday and was sent to a special court in The Hague where he will face charges for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
President Hashim Thaci said he decided to relinquish his post “to protect the integrity of the presidency of Kosovo” and to preserve the historical truth of which side was the perpetrator, and which the victim, in the conflict that killed more than 10,000 people.
“We are a freedom-loving people and not vengeful," the 52-year-old Thaci said at a news conference in Pristina, Kosovo’s capital. “That is why no claim may rewrite history. Kosovo has been the victim. Serbia has been the aggressor.”
The court confirmed his arrival in The Hague late Thursday and released a redacted version of his indictment, which was initially filed in April and confirmed by a judge on Oct. 26, a decision that likely precipitated the timing of the president’s resignation.
It describes Thaci and three other former Kosovo Liberation Army commanders who also are now in The Hague to face charges as members of a “joint criminal enterprise” set up “to gain and exercise control over all of Kosovo by means including unlawfully intimidating, mistreating, committing violence against, and removing those deemed to be opponents” from March 1998 to September 1999.
The indictment charges Thaci alongside Kadri Veseli, Rexhep Selimi and Jakup Krasniqi. All four will appear in court for the first time in coming days.
Thaci and the others “shared the intent for the commission of each of the crimes" with other members of the joint criminal enterprise, the indictment said. They each face 10 charges including murder, torture, enforced disappearances and persecution.
The indictment listed several cases of illegal detention and mistreatment of prisoners by KLA fighters, including vicious beatings and electrocutions and the murder of many others.
Announcing the existence of the indictment earlier this year, the Specialist Prosecutor’s Office alleged that the men were “criminally responsible for nearly 100 murders.”
The four suspects are charged based on their alleged membership of a joint criminal enterprise and as commanders of fighters who carried out the crimes.
The indictment was filed by an international prosecutor linked to a special Kosovo court based in The Hague, Netherlands, which was set up five years ago to investigate and try former ethnic Albanian rebel leaders for alleged war crimes.
Both Thaci and Veseli have denied committing any crimes.
Most of the people who died in the 1998-1999 war in Kosovo were ethnic Albanians, and 1,641 people are still unaccounted for. A 78-day NATO air campaign against Serbian troops ended the fighting.
Veseli is a former parliament speaker and an opposition party leader who said he was resigning from his political activities before he was flown to the Netherlands.
Thaci said he was proud to have belonged to the KLA, calling it “the most sublime value of the Albanian nation.”
He called the indictment "the smallest price we have to pay for the freedom of our people.”
The government said in a statement that all defendants should be considered innocent unless the court decides otherwise.
“No one may judge our fight for freedom," the government said.
Thaci held a ceremony at his office to hand over his presidential duties to parliament speaker Vjosa Osmani, who will serve as acting president.
Osmani, 38, the second woman to serve as head of state out of post-war Kosovo's six presidents, called for unity in a late afternoon speech that held Serbia responsible for the lives lost during the war.
“A sustainable peace in the region asks that the victims and the aggressors are not equalized," she said. "We, Kosovo’s Albanians, have been the victim of the hegemony of a genocidal regime, while Serbia has been the state that committed these crimes.”
Thaci was elected president in February 2016. His current term ends in April, when the national Assembly of Kosovo was expected to elect a new president.
Amnesty International's Balkans researcher, Jelena Sesar said the indictment of Thaci and the nine others would give hope to “thousands of victims of the Kosovo war who have waited for more than two decades to find out the truth about the horrific crimes committed against them and their loved ones.”
The European Union issued a statement welcoming Thaci's cooperation with the with the Hague-based legal institutions, saying it “strongly supports the work of the Kosovo Specialist Chambers and the Specialist Prosecutor’s Office.
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, whose country borders Kosovo, expressed his country’s support to Thaci in “this battle for Kosovo and the inviolable justice of the liberating war.”
The prosecutor’s office said earlier this year it made the existence of the indictment public because of what it called repeated efforts by Thaci and Veseli “to obstruct and undermine” the work of the court and said they were believed to have tried to overturn the Kosovo law that created the court.
The formation of the court and prosecutor’s office followed a 2011 report by the Council of Europe, a human rights body, that included allegations that KLA fighters trafficked human organs taken from prisoners and killed Serbs and fellow ethnic Albanians.
After the war, Thaci created the Democratic Party of Kosovo and has been foreign minister, deputy prime minister and prime minister, and now president since April 2016.
Kosovo-Serbia ties are still tense 21 years after war's end, despite nine years of negotiations mediated by the European Union and supported by the United States.
The indictment was announced in June when Thaci was en route to a meeting at the White House with Serb counterpart Aleksandar Vucic. That meeting was held with Kosovo's prime minister instead in September.
In 2008, Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia, a move that Serbia refuses to recognize.
Associated Press writer Zenel Zhinpotoku reported this story in Pristina, Kosovo, and AP writer Llazar Semini reported from Tirana, Albania. AP writers Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, and Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed to this report.
This version has been corrected to show the indictment was issued in April but unsealed in June.