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Ramush Haradinaj, Kosovo's 'Rambo' ex-PM and Serbian antagonist

Ismet HAJDARI
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Ramush Haradinaj stepped down as Kosovo's prime minister after being summoned by a war crimes court

Ramush Haradinaj stepped down as Kosovo's prime minister after being summoned by a war crimes court (AFP Photo/Armend NIMANI)

Pristina (AFP) - Ramush Haradinaj, who resigned as Kosovo's prime minister on Friday, is hailed as a hero at home -- where he is nicknamed "Rambo" -- but considered a war criminal by Belgrade, which has long sought to see him behind bars.

The controversial 51-year-old, who was a wartime commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), stepped down after being summoned as a suspect by a war crimes court in the Hague.

It is the second time he has resigned after being called before a war crimes court over crimes allegedly committed by the ethnic Albanian KLA separatists during the 1998-99 war.

Haradinaj has been a chief antagonist of Belgrade, which has wanted for a long time to see him punished for alleged wartime atrocities.

The conflict led to Kosovo breaking away from Serbia, but Belgrade has refused to recognise the independence of its former province.

Even before becoming prime minister for the second time in September 2017, Haradinaj had opposed talks to "normalise" relations between Belgrade and Pristina, brokered by the European Union, and the negotiations have been at a stalemate ever since.

Last November Haradinaj introduced a 100 percent tax on goods from Serbia, calling for Belgrade to recognise Kosovo's independence before negotiations proceed.

He then defied international pressure to abolish the tariff, which was a condition set by Belgrade to restart talks.

- 'Gangster in uniform' -

Haradinaj first became Kosovo's prime minister in 2004, but he resigned soon after to face trial for war crimes by a UN tribunal in The Hague, where prosecutor Carla Del Ponte described him as a "gangster in uniform".

However he was acquitted in 2008 -- the same year Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia -- and again in 2012 after a retrial was ordered owing to allegations of witness intimidation in the first case.

Politically marginalised by his brother-in-arms Hashim Thaci, now Kosovo's powerful president, Haradinaj has nevertheless managed to resurrect his political fortunes -- partly thanks to Serbia's determination to convict him.

In January 2017 he was arrested at a French airport by police acting on an international arrest warrant from Serbia, which is pursuing separate charges of torture and murder of civilians in Kosovo in 1999.

France held him for several months before rejecting Serbia's demand in June the same year.

He returned to a hero's welcome in Kosovo, greeted by thousands of supporters, and hit the campaign trail.

Born in the western village of Glodjane in 1968, Haradinaj completed his mandatory military service with the Yugoslav People's Army.

He worked as a construction worker, nightclub bouncer and martial arts trainer in Switzerland before taking up arms back home with the KLA, earning the "Rambo" moniker for his burly build and prowess on the battlefield.

Married to a popular TV news anchor, Haradinaj has three children and speaks French and English as well as Albanian and Serbian.