BELGRADE (Reuters) -- Serbian investigators have detained nine former paramilitaries in an investigation of war crimes during the 1998-99 war in Kosovo, a sign of government resolve to deal with Serbia's wartime past as the country aims for EU membership, an official said.
Prosecuting atrocities committed by Serbs in the 1990s during a series of wars in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, and Kosovo, Serbia's former southern province, is a major precondition for Belgrade to speed up its bid to join the European Union.
"Nine men were taken for questioning over the killing of 41 of Kosovo Albanian civilians in Kosovo's village of Cuska on May 14, 1999," said Bruno Vekaric, a spokesman for Serbia's office of the war crimes prosecutor. "Another two remain at large."
Vekaric said the suspects had served as members of a paramilitary unit known as The Jackals that fought alongside Serbian security forces in Kosovo during the 1998-99 war there.
"We are also investigating the role of a total of 26 people, paramilitaries, reservists from the so-called territorial defense forces and reserve police troops during the Kosovo war and some of them are in other countries," Vekaric said.
Thousands died during the Kosovo war and hundreds of thousands fled their homes. The conflict ended with the 1999 NATO bombing that forced Serbia to end its crackdown on independence-seeking ethnic Albanians. Kosovo seceded from Serbia in 2008.
Several top Serbian officials, police, and military commanders, including former President Slobodan Milosevic, have been tried for atrocities in Kosovo before the United Nations war crimes court in The Hague, Netherlands.
Last year Serbia formally applied for full membership in the EU. It also secured the unblocking of an interim trade deal as well as visa-free travel within the 27-nation bloc.
Vekaric said prosecutors intend to use new legal provisions that allow confiscation of property illegally gained by convicted war criminals in the indictments for Cuska killings.
"This was not only a vicious and cowardly slaughter of unarmed people but also an outright robbery. We want to seize every last bit they took," he said.
To secure the ratification of the pre-EU membership Stabilization and Association Agreement, Serbia must arrest Ratko Mladic, a Bosnian Serb ex-general sought by the UN war crimes court for genocide over the 1995 Srebrenica massacre.
The Netherlands, whose UN peacekeepers were deployed in and around Srebrenica during the killings but had no heavy weapons nor the mandate to intervene, wants to see Mladic captured before Serbia enjoys the trade benefits of the accord.