THE HAGUE, Netherlands - Kosovo's former prime minister and two other alleged rebel fighters from the province's brutal conflict with Serbia go on trial Monday at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal charged with a campaign of ethnic cleansing aimed at Serbs and their supporters.
The trial comes at a time of rising tensions in the Serbian province, with Belgrade rejecting a U.N.-brokered plan aimed at giving Kosovo internationally supervised statehood, and many ethnic Albanians rejecting the proposal as not going far enough toward full independence.
Ramush Haradinaj - a commander with the Kosovo Liberation Army who turned to politics after the 1998-99 war and became the province's prime minister - faces a maximum life sentence if convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity including murder, rape, torture and persecution.
Also on trial are Idriz Balaj, alleged to be the former leader of a special unit known as the Black Eagles, and Lahi Brahimaj, whom prosecutors say was one of Haradinaj's deputies in the western Kosovo region of Dukagjin. All three have pleaded not guilty to the allegations in their 37-count indictment.
Prosecutors portray Haradinaj as a ruthless commander in the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army whose forces resorted to murder, rape, torture and expulsions to drive Serbs and their supporters out of Dukagjin between March 1 and Sept. 30, 1998, so rebels could take total control of the area.
Prosecutors say that while the three did not personally commit all the alleged crimes, Haradinaj, Balaj and Brahimaj are held responsible for them because the offenses were part of a "joint criminal enterprise" to expel and mistreat Serbs and the three were part of the enterprise.
After the war, Haradinaj rose through the political ranks and served for 100 days as prime minister of U.N.-administered Kosovo, but resigned as soon as he was indicted in March 2005 and turned himself in to U.N. court declaring his innocence.
He was allowed to return home while he awaited trial and resumed limited political responsibilities as leader of the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo party. His two co-defendants have remained in custody since 2005 at the U.N. court's detention unit in The Hague, Netherlands.
Billboards with the slogan "With Ramush" have sprouted across the province in recent days, and hundreds of supporters cheered as he left Kosovo to return to The Hague for his trial.
"He is going to The Hague not only to defend himself, but to defend our war for freedom," Prime Minister Agim Ceku said. "We're convinced that truth and justice are on Ramush's side."
Among allegations in the indictment are that Balaj was present when KLA forces cut off the nose of Sali Berisha, a Gypsy they believed was a Serb collaborator.
According to the indictment, Berisha and two other Gypsies were then tortured and killed. Balaj "cut each of the three men on their necks, arms and thighs, rubbed salt into the wounds and sewed them up," it alleges. He then wrapped the men in barbed wire and stabbed one of them in the eye, prosecutors say.
"The three men were tied behind Idriz Balaj's vehicle and dragged in the direction of Lake Radonjic. They were killed while in KLA custody," the charges claim.
Their bodies were later found in a canal leading into the lake and identified using DNA analysis, the prosecutors allege. Their remains were among several bodies found at the canal.
Increasing tension around the trial was the unveiling last month of a U.N. plan that would grant greater rights and security to Kosovo's small Serbian minority while putting the province under internationally supervised self-rule and giving it elements of statehood, such as a flag, anthem, army and constitution.