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Ramush Haradinaj, a Kosovo Albanian former guerilla commander who served briefly as prime minister, speaks during an interview with Reuters at the AAK headquarters in Pristina December 4, 2012. REUTERS/Hazir Reka

(reuters_tickers)

By Fatos Bytyci

PRISTINA (Reuters) - Kosovo asked the European Union on Thursday to press aspirant member state Serbia to drop international arrest warrants for former Kosovar guerrillas including one for an ex-prime minister who was detained in France this week.

Wednesday's arrest of Ramush Haradinaj - who was a Kosovo guerrilla commander during the 1998-99 war against Serbian rule - prompted angry Kosovo government and opposition leaders to call for a halt to EU-mediated normalisation talks between Serbia and its former, mainly ethnic Albanian province.

The talks are an EU precondition for both countries to make progress towards membership of the bloc.

A security source in Pristina told Reuters that there were currently around 20 Kosovo citizens subject to Interpol Red Notice arrest warrants - mainly ex-members of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) that fought Serbian security forces.

Kosovo's minister in charge of the EU-brokered dialogue with Serbia, Edita Tahiri, said she had written to Brussels asking it to use its leverage to make Serbia withdraw the arrest warrants.

"With these primitive acts, Serbia is not only hurting the spirit of the dialogue to have good neighbourly relations, but is proving that it is a destabilising factor in the whole region, and international partners should be seriously worried," Tahiri told local media.

The next test of brittle Kosovo-Serbian relations will be Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic's scheduled visit to a mainly ethnic Serb town in Kosovo on Friday, the eve of Christian Orthodox Christmas Day.

Serbia hopes to complete accession talks with the EU by 2020. Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008, has signed a trade and association pact with the EU but remains far from membership due to serious corruption and organised crime.

SERBIA SET ON HARADINAJ'S EXTRADITION

Serbia, which still formally considers Kosovo as part of its territory, reaffirmed it would seek Haradinaj's extradition.

If France does not extradite him, Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said on Thursday, West European states should stop "patronising" Serbia about judicial reforms it has undertaken to help qualify for EU accession.

Haradinaj, who was to appear before a French court later on Thursday, served briefly as Kosovo premier in 2004 and 2005 before being tried and acquitted twice of war crimes at a U.N. tribunal in The Hague. At the time, Kosovo was a ward of the United Nations.

Serbia has charged Haradinaj with murders of Serbs in the late 1990s war. It ended after NATO bombed Serbia for 11 weeks to compel it to withdraw forces who had killed some 10,000 Albanian civilians in counter-insurgency operations.

The majority of Kosovo's 1.8 million population are opposed to any trials of ex-guerrillas they see as freedom fighters.

"We, the (ex) members of the KLA, are proud to have fought against discriminatory laws and the criminal regime of (then-Serbian leader) Slobodan Milosevic," Kosovo President Hashim Thaci said in reaction to Haradinaj's arrest.

In June 2015 Haradinaj, now a Kosovo opposition party leader, was arrested by Slovenian police but freed after two days following diplomatic pressure.

Around 130,000 people were killed in a decade of conflict following the break-up of old federal Yugoslavia, and its successor states were loath to prosecute their own ethnic kin.

Western governments that believed prosecutions of all sides were needed to bring reconciliation and stability to the region and move it closer to the EU set up two international criminal courts - one for former Yugoslav republics (ICTY) such as Bosnia, and one for Kosovo, both based in The Hague.

Set up in 1993, the ICTY is due to complete its work this year, having prosecuted and jailed mainly Bosnian Serbs. The Kosovo court came into being only at the beginning of this year and indictments must wait until judges, none of whom has yet taken office, have drawn up rules of procedure.

(Additinal reporting by Thomas Escritt in Amsterdam; Editing by Ivana Sekularac and Mark Heinrich)

Reuters