"Former president of Kosovo Hashim Thaci (pictured) insisted today that he is innocent, addressing an international court panel during his hearing on ten charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity," AP reported, quoted by BTA.

At the end of his lawyer's opening statement, Thaci stood and addressed the judges, saying he expected the evidence to lead to his acquittal.

He added that "victims do not get justice when innocent people are persecuted."

Thaci was a student when he returned from what he described as "political exile" in Switzerland to join the fight for Kosovo's independence from Serbia.

He was welcomed by Western leaders, who in 1999 invited him to peace talks in France in his role as political head of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), and was seen as a leader who could lead the country to independence.

Thaci said he regretted that the late US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and other international diplomats who had died in the nearly quarter-century since the war could not speak on his behalf.

"They could testify for me about what I said and what I did during this very important period in the history of Kosovo," he said.

"I am happy that many others like them have come to testify to my innocence," Thaci added.

According to prosecutors, Thaci and three other former AOK leaders - Kadri Veseli, Recep Selimi and Yakup Krasnici, who are standing trial together with him, are responsible for killing, illegally detaining and abusing people they considered traitors or collaborators with Serbian forces .

"I am innocent of all these charges," Thaci said.

"Nevertheless, I am ready to face this new challenge and achieve success for my family, my people and my country," he stressed.

Thaci said he regretted all the victims of the 1998-99 war against Serbian rule, but expected his charges to be dropped.

"I feel sadness and pain for all the victims of this terrible war, regardless of their ethnicity, religion or political affiliation," said the 54-year-old former Kosovo president.

In opening statements earlier today, his lawyers said Thaci was not in control of the AOK at the time of the war crimes charges.

The lawyers laid the blame on unscrupulous local KLA commanders.

"Hashim Thaci did not control the KLA, local commanders did," Thachi's American lawyer, Gregory Kehoe, told the judges.

The question of how much control Thaci and the other three former KLA commanders had over army fighters will be key in the trial, which began yesterday at the Special Court for Kosovo in The Hague and is expected to last many months.

The four former AOK leaders were taken into custody in November 2020 following the confirmation of the indictment for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity.

They pleaded not guilty when they appeared in court at the preliminary hearing.

Thaci and the other three leaders of the disbanded KLA were indicted for war crimes, crimes against humanity, specifically persecution, illegal detention, torture, murder, ill-treatment from March 1998 to September 1999. The 1998 Kosovo unrest- 1999 led to Kosovo's independence from Serbia in 2008, with the majority of those killed in that period of over 13,000 believed to be ethnic Albanians.

The specialized court in The Hague was established in 2015 to deal with serious crimes committed in the period 1998-2000 in Kosovo.

Its creation was prompted by a Council of Europe report published on 7 January 2011, which alleged that members of the Kosovo Liberation Army were involved in drug trafficking, kidnapping and murder, as well as trafficking in human organs .

Two people have been arrested in Kosovo for trafficking in human organs