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French court orders release of ex-Kosovo prime minister

STRASBOURG, France (Reuters) - A French appeals court ordered the release of ex Kosovo prime minister Ramush Haradinaj on Thursday, but said the guerrilla commander during the 1998-99 Kosovo war would have to stay in France pending a review of a Serbian extradition request.

President of the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo (AAK) Ramush Haradinaj, a Kosovo Albanian former guerilla commander who served briefly as prime minister, speaks during an interview with Reuters at the AAK headquarters in Pristina December 4, 2012. REUTERS/Hazir Reka

Authorities had detained Haradinaj as he flew into France on Jan. 4 following a request from Serbia, which says he is a war criminal for his role in leading a guerrilla insurgency in its former southern province of Kosovo.

The arrest further strained brittle diplomatic ties between Serbia and Kosovo, which declared independence with Western backing in 2008 and has demanded Belgrade drop its efforts to prosecute people linked to the conflict.

“All of this is a circus. This is an abuse of the law and what you are doing is political,” Haradinaj told the court during the hearing.

The court turned down a request from Haradinaj’s legal team for Haradinaj to be released without any conditions attached, telling him he must live in Strasbourg and report to the police twice a week.

Prosecuting attorney Dominique Steinmetz said Serbia’s extradition request had not reached the local prosecutor, and could take “several weeks, even several months”.

Kosovo has asked the European Union to press Serbia to drop the warrants against him and others, and angry government and opposition leaders in Pristina called for a halt to EU-mediated normalisation talks between Belgrade and its former, mainly ethnic Albanian province.

The talks are a precondition for both countries to make progress towards membership of the European Union.

The government in Belgrade was due to hold a session on Friday to discuss the court’s decision to release Haradinaj.

“Haradinaj’s release even a provisional one is not good news especially for the families of his victims,” Serbia’s minister for labour and social affairs, Aleksandar Vulin, was quoted saying by Tanjug news agency.

Haradinaj’s Alliance for the Future of Kosovo party urged French authorities to stop all legal actions against him.

“We consider that the decision to release him from custody but not allow him to return to his homeland does not serve justice fully,” it added in a statement. He served briefly as prime minister in 2004 and 2005.

Reporting by Gilbert Reilhac; additional reporting by Fatos Bytyci in Pristina and Ivana Sekularac in Belgrade; Writing by John Irish; Editing by Sudip Kar-Gupta and Andrew Heavens