updated 3/5/2007 8:56:34 PM ET 2007-03-06T01:56:34

The chief Yugoslav war crimes prosecutor denounced Kosovo’s former prime minister on Monday as a warlord and “a gangster in uniform” responsible for dozens of murders during the province’s 1998-99 war with Serb forces.

His defense attorney, however, called former Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj “a unifying influence and the standard bearer for his nation’s hopes of independence from Serbia.”

The sharply contrasting portraits of the former guerrilla commander came in opening statements at the trial of Haradinaj and two other fighters of the Kosovo Liberation Army — Idriz Balaj and Lahi Brahimaj. The three face 37 counts of atrocities against Serbs and their suspected supporters in Kosovo in 1998.

All three have denied the charges. They face maximum life sentences if convicted.

“These men — this warlord with his lieutenant and his jailer — have blood on their hands,” chief U.N. prosecutor Carla Del Ponte told a three-judge panel.

“The three accused were gangsters in uniform,” she added.

Prosecutors say Haradinaj was a ruthless commander in the KLA and that his forces resorted to murder, rape and torture to drive Serbs out of the Dukagjin area in 1998. While they did not personally commit all the alleged crimes, Haradinaj, Balaj and Brahimaj were responsible for the alleged “joint criminal enterprise” to expel Serbs, prosecutors say.

Prosecutors accuse the defendants of committing 48 murders and say many of the victims were dumped in a canal leading to Lake Radonjic, near Haradinaj’s wartime headquarters.

Defense attorney Ben Emmerson said, however, that Haradinaj “fought an honorable war. Faced with the overwhelming firepower of the combined Serbian forces, he sought to organize the defense of the Albanian people.”

In Haradinaj’s hometown, about 5,000 members of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority marched to show their support Monday, waving flags and banners adorned with his picture and demanding his release.

Tense times in Kosovo
The trial opened at a time of rising tensions in Kosovo, where some ethnic Albanians have rejected a U.N. plan intended to steer the Serbian province toward statehood, saying it does not go far enough toward full independence. Belgrade has rejected the proposal as going too far.

Del Ponte said prosecution witnesses have been repeatedly threatened and often were terrified to appear in court, jeopardizing her case.

“If I have no witnesses appearing in this court, I will be obliged to withdraw this indictment,” she added, urging judges to protect witnesses.

Building on his popularity as a KLA fighter, Haradinaj entered politics after the 1998-99 war and rose to serve 100 days as prime minister before resigning in March 2005 following his indictment. He immediately turned himself in to the U.N. court and declared his innocence, but was later allowed to return home and resume limited political activities.

Prosecutor David Re acknowledged that both sides committed crimes during the war — pointing out that former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was on trial for war crimes in Kosovo and other places when he died in custody last year before his trial could be completed.

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