Kosovo Serb leader pleads not guilty to war crimes

A top Kosovo Serb politician pleaded not guilty to charges of war crimes against ethnic Albanians in 1999 and 2000 at the start of his trial here Tuesday.

"I am absolutely not guilty," Oliver Ivanovic told an EU tribunal in the northern town of Kosovska Mitrovica.

Four other ethnic Serbs, being tried alongside Ivanovic, have also all pleaded not guilty.

"Ivanovic is impatient to present his defence and to prove that he could not have had any link with the claims that have been made against him," his lawyer Nebojsa Vlajic told reporters before opening of the trial.

The 61-year-old Ivanovic, who is considered a political moderate, is the first senior Kosovo Serb official to be charged and tried by the European Union Rule of Law Mission (EULEX) on suspicion of war crimes against ethnic Albanians.

EULEX, the EU's police and justice mission in the region, has the power to step in and take on cases that the local judiciary and police are unable to handle because of their sensitive nature.

Ivanovic, a former Serbian secretary for Kosovo, was elected in December 2013 as municipal councillor in the Serb-majority northern Kosovska Mitrovica region.

But in January he was arrested and charged with war crimes and murder.

After the 1998-1999 war Ivanovic became a key interlocutor with NATO, the UN and later the EU and was seen as backing dialogue with Kosovo Albanian community.

However, he was also among the organisers of a now-disbanded Kosovo Serb group of vigilantes known as "Bridgewatchers", whose members were suspected of taking part in violence against ethnic Albanians.

Some 120,000 ethnic Serbs live in Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008 and which counts 1.8 million inhabitants -- most of them ethnic Albanians.

Kosovo has been recognised by more than 100 countries, including the United States and a majority of the EU states.