EU arrests moderate Kosovo Serb leader in war crimes probe

by Reuters
Monday, 27 January 2014 18:43 GMT

By Fatos Bytyci

PRISTINA, Jan 27 (Reuters) - A moderate Kosovo Serb leader and key interlocutor for NATO and the European Union in the young Balkan country was arrested on Monday in connection with alleged war crimes committed more than a decade ago, the EU said.

Oliver Ivanovic, 60, was questioned and then arrested "as an alleged suspect in an ongoing war crimes investigation, together with allegations of aggravated murder after the conflict," the EU's police and justice mission in Kosovo said in a statement.

A judge was considering a request for his further detention, it added.

Ivanovic, who lives in the ethnically-divided flashpoint town of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, has been a key point of contact for NATO's peacekeeping force, the EU, United Nations and Western embassies since a 1998-99 war in the former southern Serbian province.

Some 40,000-50,000 ethnic Serbs live in northern Kosovo, rejecting integration with the mainly Albanian state since it declared independence from Serbia in 2008.

Ivanovic came to prominence immediately after the war, as one of the organisers of Serbs in Mitrovica known as the 'Bridgewatchers', who guarded against Albanian infiltration into the northern side of the town.

The Bridgewatchers were frequently involved in inter-ethnic violence in the turbulent postwar period, after NATO bombing drove out Serbian forces accused of killing and expelling Kosovo Albanian civilians during a two-year counter-insurgency war.

The group was officially disbanded, but many of its members branched out into organised crime. Ivanovic entered politics and became known for his moderate stance, advocating dialogue and compromise while still rejecting Kosovo sovereignty.

He ran unsuccessfully for mayor of north Mitrovica in December, in the first municipal polls to be held in the north under Kosovo law, part of a landmark EU-brokered accord between Serbia and Kosovo to integrate the north Kosovo Serbs after years of political and economic limbo.

The EU mission, established in 2008, handles sensitive cases of war crimes and high-level graft.

(Reporting by Fatos Bytyci; Editing by Matt Robinson)

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