PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — The European Union’s police mission in Kosovo conducted a major operation against an Albanian-Serb organized crime ring on Wednesday, officials said. Six people were arrested and authorities were hunting for a governing party lawmaker suspected of being the ringleader.
Azem Syla, of the Democratic Party of Kosovo, was still at large “despite consistent efforts by Kosovo police over the last 10 days to locate him,” prosecutors said.
Lawyer Tome Gashi, who has defended Syla in a previous case, said he doesn’t know if he is the lawmaker’s attorney now and that he has had no contacts with Syla after the raids were announced.
Syla, 65, was a top commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army during the 1998-99 separatist war against Serbia, which was led by Slobodan Milosevic at the time.
Police deployed 350 officers in raids overnight in 42 locations across Kosovo associated with 40 suspects, according to a statement from prosecutors emailed to The Associated Press, adding that the investigation was ongoing.
The European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo, or EULEX, was leading the operation with the assistance of Kosovo police. The investigation also was conducted in cooperation with authorities in Belgrade since several of the defendants reside in Serbia.
Prosecutors said the criminal gang has been operating since 2006, and owned or managed properties in Kosovo worth 30 million euros ($34 million) for which they have used false documents and bribed officials.
“The injured parties are the state budget of Kosovo, and Kosovo Serb families whose entitlement to land parcels was misused by the organized criminal group,” the prosecutors’ statement said.
Kosovo authorities have seized some of the properties and plan to restore the land to its legitimate owners, the statement said.
The charges against the defendants include organized crime, money laundering, abuse of official position, falsifying documents and giving and receiving bribes.
President Hashim Thaci hailed the operation and called on all possible witnesses to cooperate with police and prosecutors.
“The fight against corruption and organized crime is the key to building up a democratic and fair state, key to our European future,” he said on his Facebook page.
EULEX helps Kosovo’s fragile judicial system handle war crimes and organized crime cases. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, a move still rejected by Belgrade, and the fledgling country hopes to achieve EU membership.
A previous version of this story has been corrected to show that authorities have issued an arrest warrant for the lawmaker, not that he was arrested.