COLMAR: A French court on Thursday rejected a request by Serbia to extradite Kosovo's former prime minister Ramush Haradinaj, whom Belgrade accuses of committing war crimes during the 1998-1999 Kosovo conflict.
Haradinaj, 48, was arrested by French police on January 4 when he flew into the Franco-Swiss airport of Basel-Mulhouse, but he is free to return home following Thursday's decision by the court in Colmar, eastern France.
Haradinaj, an ex-commander in the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), has already been tried and acquitted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia over allegations of crimes stemming from 1998.
But Belgrade issued an international arrest warrant over separate charges of violence against Serbian civilians in Kosovo in June 1999.
Haradinaj, a lawmaker who briefly served as premier from 2004 and now leads an opposition party, told AFP in an interview this month that he is the victim of "political persecution".
Known as "Rambo" for his stocky build and military prowess, he is seen as a hero my many at home for his efforts to win independence for Kosovo from late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic.
Kosovo, a predominantly ethnic Albanian province, unilaterally declared independence a decade after the conflict, a move since recognised by more than 100 countries but not by Belgrade or its big brother ally Russia.
Thousands of ethnic Albanians protested in Pristina and other cities in the region against Haradinaj's arrest.
His detention also heightened tensions between Belgrade and Pristina, which began European Union-brokered talks in 2011 to "normalise" relations.
Kosovo President Hashim Thaci said in a Facebook post that the French court's decision was "good news".
He described it as proof that the "slanders" of Serbia's intelligence services against the KLA were "not valid and not taken into consideration by the democratic world".
A statement from the government in Pristina said the decision confirmed that Serbian arrest warrants against Haradinaj and other KLA fighters "are political and have low intentions".
Serbia's Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic meanwhile called a government meeting in Belgrade to discuss the ruling.
The public prosecutor in Colmar has five days to launch an appeal.
Before Thursday's decision, Haradinaj had been released on bail but told he could not leave France while he awaited the ruling.
He said he was missing an opportunity to fulfil his role as an opposition leader, saying "everybody is campaigning in Kosovo except me".
No date has been scheduled for elections but there is wide speculation that a snap vote will be held in Kosovo in coming months.