By Fatos Bytyci
PRISTINA (Reuters) - Kosovo's state prosecutor indicted 12 people including senior government officials on charges of pensions fraud on Friday, accusing them of falsely registering thousands of people as war veterans who claimed millions of euros in state benefits.
Around 40,000 people in Kosovo are drawing state pensions for war veterans, but the prosecution says half of them never fought in the 1998-99 war for independence with Serbia.
Public prosecutor Aleksander Lumezi told Reuters that among those indicted is Rrustem Berisha, minister for Kosovo's Security Forces and his deputy Agim Ceku.
Ceku served as prime minister from 2006 to 2008.
"From the evidences that we have gathered so far it has been proven that from the unlawful payments for veterans the budget was damaged in the amount of 68 million euros," the state prosecutor's office said in a statement.
Ceku also heads the commission which evaluates war veterans' pensions applications. He declined to comment on the charges.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has long warned that Kosovo's war veterans' pension scheme would come to be a major burden on its budget.
Ceku and most of Kosovo's political elite served high up in the Kosovo Liberation Army during the war and are held in high esteem by Kosovars, making any investigation difficult.
One prosecutor on the case left Kosovo for the United States saying he had been receiving threats to quit. This drew criticism from Washington and the European Union.
"Pension fraud indictment filed, proud of Kosovo for taking this important step to fight corruption," the U.S. Ambassador in Pristina, Greg Delawie, wrote on Twitter.
Kosovo, which has a population of 1.8 million and is mainly ethnic Albanian, declared independence from Belgrade in 2008, almost a decade after NATO air strikes ousted Serbian forces and halted a crackdown on ethnic Albanians in a counter-insurgency.
(Reporting by Fatos Bytyci; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)