- Associated Press - Thursday, December 16, 2010

PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — Kosovo’s Prime Minister Hashim Thaci said Thursday that a report suggesting he was the head of a criminal gang behind a grisly trade in the kidneys of slain civilian detainees was “monstrous” and “scandalous.”

Mr. Thaci, who made his first public appearance since the publication of the report by Council of Europe investigator Dick Marty, said the allegations were aimed at damaging Kosovo’s image internationally.

“The world knows who was the aggressor and who were the victims in Kosovo,” Mr. Thaci said referring to crimes committed by former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic against ethnic Albanians during the 1998-1999 war. “These tendencies to change history, to equate the aggressor and the victim … will fail again.”

In an address broadcast live on Kosovo’s public television, the former leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army said he felt “deeply offended” by the allegations.

“As prime minister, citizen of Kosovo and a father, I feel deeply offended,” Mr. Thaci said. “Truth and justice are on our side.”

Dick Marty, a Swiss senator, told reporters in Paris that “inhuman” treatment of people and illicit trafficking of human organs in the immediate aftermath of the country’s war for independence from Serbia remains unpunished.

Mr. Marty’s report, made public Tuesday, claimed that civilian detainees of the KLA rebels were shot to death to sell their kidneys on the black market and suggested that Mr. Thaci was once the “boss” of a criminal underworld behind the trafficking.

Mr. Thaci dismissed the allegations as “ill-intentioned propaganda,” driven by a Serb-inspired agenda to undermine Kosovo’s statehood. Kosovo declared independence in 2008, but Serbia has refused to recognize its sovereignty.

Serbia’s war crimes prosecutors expressed their “satisfaction” Thursday with Mr. Marty’s report and added that their investigation of organ trafficking in the region represents “an important source” of the report.

“This day is very important for the [Serbian] prosecution because we have been working on this case for a long time,” Serbia’s war crimes Prosecutor Vladimir Vukcevic said.

He claimed that up to 500 people have been the victims of this “classic organized crime” operation, of which 400 were Serbs while the rest are other non-Albanians.

Mr. Marty declined to specify how many people were killed for their organs.

“There are victims — perhaps not as many as some people claim — but there were several victims, and even if there were one or two, that would be enough and would justify an investigation,” he said.

Thaci called on Marty to provide facts and evidence to judicial institutions to assist the investigations. Thaci also said he is to pursue “all possible legal and political action” to counter the allegations in the report.

Earlier Thursday, a top Kosovo official said Mr. Thaci is planning to sue Mr. Marty for libel. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said Mr. Thaci has contacted attorneys to consult them, and is also considering suing the London-based Guardian newspaper, which first published the report.

Mr. Thaci was the rebel army’s political head during the 1998-99 war with Serbia, and his party just won Kosovo’s first general elections since it declared its 2008 independence. NATO bombed Serbia for 78 days in 1999 to make it stop its brutal crackdown on separatist ethnic Albanians.

Officials in Kosovo and Serbia are preparing to engage in EU-backed negotiations on normalizing relations between the former foes. It is not clear what the impact of the report will be on those talks as Serbia’s officials have indicated they are reluctant to meet Mr. Thaci amid the allegations.

The Council of Europe human rights panel for whom Mr. Marty conducted the investigation voted Thursday to recommend international and national investigations into the report.

Mr. Marty led a team of investigators to Kosovo and Albania in 2009, following allegations of organ trafficking published in a book by former U.N. War Crimes tribunal prosecutor Carla Del Ponte who said she was given information by Western journalists.

Mr. Marty’s investigation found that there were a number of detention facilities in Albania, where both Kosovan opponents of the KLA and Serbs were purportedly held once the hostilities in Kosovo were over in 1999, including a “state-of-the-art reception center for the organized crime of organ trafficking.”

EU investigators looking into claims that organ harvesting took place in northern Albania have said they found no proof of the allegations. The EU police force in Kosovo on Wednesday called for those with evidence to come forward.

Associated Press writers Jamey Keaten and Jeff Schaeffer in Paris and Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade contributed to the report.

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