Serbia arrested on Tuesday the suspected leader of a group of gunmen who killed a Kosovo police officer on September 24, the interior ministry said.
Milan Radoicic was remanded in custody for 48 hours and handed over to the Belgrade public prosecutor’s office, the ministry said in a statement, adding that police searched his flat and other properties. It did not say where he was arrested.
Radoicic, 45, is a businessman and former influential Kosovo Serb powerbroker.
He is suspected, along with “several unknown persons”, of “unauthorised production, possession, carrying and trafficking of firearms and explosive substances as well as serious crimes against general safety”, the prosecutors said.
Between January and the day of the attack, Radoicic was procuring the weapons from neighbouring Bosnia and then transporting and storing them at “unspecified locations” in Kosovo, they said in a statement.
During a hearing, Radoicic denied having committed the crimes he is suspected of, the statement said.
Meanwhile, Kosovo President Vjosa Osmani told CNN that her country wanted “to have Radoicic and other terrorists handed over to the Republic of Kosovo so that real justice can be delivered”.
Formerly vice-president of the Serbian List (Srpska Lista), the main political grouping of Kosovo Serbs, he resigned from his post last week.
He was questioned by Serbian police for the first time on Saturday.
A few days earlier, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic had stated that Radoicic was in “central Serbia” and available for questioning by the Serb authorities.
– Years of distrust –
Around 30 gunmen were involved in the hours-long shootout in the village of Banjska on September 24, after they ambushed a police patrol and later barricaded themselves in an Orthodox monastery near the northern border with Serbia.
The day after Kosovo’s interior minister Xhelal Svecla accused Radoicic of leading the paramilitary commando.
Several days later, Radoicic himself said he had set up the armed group without the knowledge of Serbia.
Three other men have been arrested, suspected like Radoicic of “terrorism” by Kosovo prosecutors. Several dozen other suspects are believed to have fled into Serbia.
The killing of the officer brought years of distrust and bitterness to the surface — as a war of words between Belgrade and Pristina, competing days of mourning, and calls for sanctions marred already fractious relations.
Kosovo’s government has accused Belgrade of backing the entire operation, with Prime Minister Albin Kurti writing that the weapons and equipment used in the attack were “made by Serbian state-owned military arms producers”.
The United States on Friday warned of “a large Serbian military deployment along the border with Kosovo” and called on “Serbia to withdraw those forces from the border”.
On Tuesday, the White House said that Serbia has begun withdrawing troops from the Kosovo border after having warned of an unprecedented build-up.
“We have seen them start to move those forces away and that’s a good thing,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told a briefing.
It followed the announcement by Serbia Monday that its troop numbers were back to normal near the border with Kosovo, which accuses it of trying to annex the Serb-majority north.
Kosovo, a former province of Serbia which broke away and declared independence in 2008 — a status Belgrade has refused to recognise — has long seen strained relations between its ethnic Albanian majority and its Serb minority population.