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Kosovo Serb leader arrested over alleged war crimes

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(KOSOVSKA MITROVICA) - A top Serb politician was arrested on Tuesday on suspicion of war crimes allegedly committed during the 1990s war, his lawyer said.

Oliver Ivanovic, 60, was ordered detained for a month over crimes "which occurred in 1999 and in 2000 against Albanian victims", his lawyer Nebojsa Vlajic told AFP.

Ivanovic, who is considered a moderate, is the first senior Kosovo Serb official to be arrested by the European Union Rule of Law Mission (EULEX) on suspicion of war crimes against ethnic Albanians.

He has been transferred to a Pristina prison, the lawyer added, without giving other details on the alleged crimes.

The arrest came a day after Ivanovic had presented himself voluntarily for questioning in the northern flashpoint city of Kosovska Mitrovica, where he lives, accompanied by his lawyer.

He was questioned by an EULEX prosecutor, and then placed in custody, awaiting for a Kosovska Mitrovica court judge ruling on the prosecutor's request that he be held for a month. The request was approved early on Tuesday.

EULEX is the EU's police and justice mission in the region which 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.

According to local newspapers, Ivanovic is suspected of having tortured and murdered ethnic Albanians.

His associates however said the allegations were politically motivated.

"We have reasons to believe that Ivanovic's arrest and accusations against him are the result of political pressure," Ksenija Bozovic, his political associate, told AFP.

"Municipal councillors elected on his list will certainly resign today," she added.

Ivanovic was in December elected municipal councillor in the Serb-majority northern Kosovska Mitrovica region.

After the 1998-1999 war he became a key interlocutor with NATO, the UN and later the EU.

Ivanovic was also among organisers of a now disbanded Kosovo Serb group of vigilantes set up in Mitrovica, known as "Bridgewatchers". Their 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 whom are ethnic Albanians.

However, the 40,000 or so Serbs living in the north do not recognise Kosovo's independence.

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

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