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Hague Court Questioning Ends For Former Kosovar War Commander

Former Kosovo Liberation Army commander Rrustem Mustafa speaks with reporters as he leaves The Hague-based Kosovo Specialist Chambers and Specialist Prosecutor's Office after questioning on January 15.

THE HAGUE -- A former commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) has completed two days of questioning at a controversial special court in the Netherlands about his role during Kosovo's 1998-99 war of independence from Serbia.

Rrustem Mustafa and his attorney spent some 17 hours being interviewed by members of the Kosovo Specialist Chambers and the Specialist Prosecutor's Office at The Hague on January 14-15.

"The questions have been very serious and we have been very serious in response," Mustafa told reporters outside the Prosecutor's Office building on January 15. "The UCK has protected me and I did not have to defend the UCK."

He added that he was "invited as a suspect witness."

Sami Lushtaku, another UCK commander, is due to be interviewed by the court on January 16, said his lawyer, Arian Koci.

Mustafa and Lushtaku were important figures during the uprising against Serbian forces and have been politically active in the Democratic Party of Kosovo during the last 20 years.

Kosovar Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj, who was acquitted in a UN court of war crimes and crimes against humanity -- met with Mustafa and Lushtaku on January 13 ahead of their visit to The Hague.

Haradinaj proclaimed the UCK's role during the 1998-99 war to be "clean and sacred."

Kosovar President Hashim Thaci, who also fought with the UCK, wrote on Facebook that the two men were "national war heroes" who will "always remain as such for the Kosovo institutions and the people."

Many Serbs say UCK fighters committed atrocities against the minority Serbian community of Kosovo, which has about 2 million citizens.

"This tribunal presents the last chance to shed light on the assassinations in Kosovo," said Beriana Mustafa, a journalist who lives in Pristina and whose father was killed near his home after he criticized UCK commanders.

"Hope is always the last to die," said Natasa Scepanovic, the leader of an association of Serbian victims that is hoping for prosecutions against UCK members they say committed crimes.

The body of Scepanovic's father was discovered in 2003, several years after he was killed. Her mother is one of about 1,700 people still listed as missing from the Kosovar war.

The special court, which is funded by the European Union, will deal with alleged crimes committed in the period January 1998 through December 2000.

The court was created by a law passed by Kosovo's parliament in 2015 under pressure from the EU, the United States, and international organizations.

But it only became operational two years later when rules for procedure and evidence were adopted by the parliament.

Although the judges, prosecutors, and other court officials are from various countries, the court is being administered under the laws of Kosovo.

The court's establishment led to great opposition within Kosovo and particularly among UCK veterans, who believe that Serbs who are alleged to have committed crimes in Kosovo in 1998-99 should also be interviewed by prosecutors.

But many leaders of Serbian forces have been tried and sentenced by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).

At least 2,800 people were killed and hundreds of thousands forced to flee their homes during the Kosovo War, which ended after NATO warplanes forced Yugoslav forces to pull out of Kosovo.

The former Serbian-ruled region declared independence in 2008 and has been recognized by more than 110 countries, but not by Belgrade.

With reporting by AP and AFP