The Hague (AFP) -
Kosovo's former president Hashim Thaci appeared for the first time before a war crimes court in The Hague on Monday, in a stunning downfall for the one-time guerilla liberation hero from the 1990s conflict with Serbia.
Thaci, 52, resigned as president last Thursday and flew to the Netherlands where he was placed in the detention centre of the Kosovo Specialist Chambers (KSC) tribunal.
Thaci was the political chief of the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), an ethnic Albanian group which battled Serb forces for the independence of the southern province in a bitter conflict that claimed more than 13,000 lives.
Wearing a grey suit and red tie, Thaci spoke to confirm his name and date of birth, then listened through headphones while a court official read out the indictment against him.
Thaci and three others have been charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, torture, illegal detention, enforced disappearances and persecution, committed between 1998 and 1999.
The indictment accuses them of 'a widespread or systematic attack against the civilian population', including those believed to be collaborating with Serb forces, or not cooperating with the KLA.
Thaci has repeatedly proclaimed his innocence and claims the international system of justice is 'rewriting history' over the conflict. On Thursday he said he was stepping down as president to 'protect the integrity' of the office.
Thaci -- who went by the nom de guerre 'Snake' during the war -- has pledged to cooperate with the tribunal, which has scheduled his first hearing for 3:00 pm (1400 GMT) Monday.
- 'Injustice has been done' -
Former KLA spokesman Jakup Krasniqi, one of Thaci's co-defendants, pleaded not guilty to the charges when he made his first appearance at the court on Monday.
'It is not right that I am here, an injustice has been done against me,' said Krasniqi, 69. a former Kosovar politician who was arrested by armed EU police late Wednesday in Pristina.
'I have never treated people in my life in this way. It was war and we fought against the Serbs who committed genocide in Kosovo,' he said, adding that the KLA was in a 'joint liberation enterprise' with the United States, NATO and UN.
The other co-defendants are Thaci's closest political ally Kadri Veseli and key KLA figure Rexhep Selimi.
The bitter conflict killed ethnic Albanian Kosovars for the most part, and only ended when a NATO air campaign forced Serb forces to withdraw.
Top Serbian military and police officials were later convicted of war crimes in other international courts.
Thaci downed his guns after the war and joined politics, leading then US vice president Joe Biden to once hail him as the 'George Washington of Kosovo'.
But rebel leaders of the KLA have also been accused of revenge attacks on Serbs, Roma and ethnic Albanian rivals during and after the war.
Many former KLA chiefs have gone on to dominate politics in Kosovo, with many still seeing him as a liberation hero, although critics see him and others as the face of a corrupt, entrenched political elite.
- 'Leave this to the court' -
The charges are nevertheless a seismic moment for a young country still struggling with tense relations with Serbia, and lacking international recognition from countries like Russia since Pristina unilaterally declared independence in 2008.
Thaci's first appearance in court was the top headline in Kosovo newspapers while television channels were carrying it live.
While politicians were careful not to comment on the hearing, his former war comrades publicly defended him.
'The indictment was filed on the basis of the testimony of the Serbian prosecutor's office. It's a banal indictment,' Faton Klinaku, the general secretary of the war veterans organisation, told local media.
Opinion on the streets was mixed.
'It's not right. The Serbs were the side that were committing crimes, killing us while they (the court) arrested those who were fighting for Kosovo,' Doruntina Begu, 41, a nurse in Pristina.
'Let?s leave this to the court. If Thaci is innocent, they will let him go in the end,' 72-year-old pensioner Musli Hasani said.
The Kosovo Specialist Chambers was set up with EU backing five years ago, following a 2011 Council of Europe report which named Thaci and others as allegedly being involved in crimes.
The judges, specialist prosecutor and staff are drawn from the international community.