February 26, 2016

PRISTINA, Kosovo (AP) — Kosovo’s Parliament on Friday elected Foreign Minister Hashim Thaci as the country’s new president in the absence of opposition lawmakers who accuse him of being responsible for two deals with Serbia and Montenegro that they reject.

The election committee said Thaci secured 71 votes among the 81 lawmakers that were present in the third round of voting after failing to reach the minimum requirements in the first two rounds. The other candidate, Rafet Rama, got no votes and 10 votes were declared invalid.

Many of the opposition lawmakers in the 120-seat Parliament were suspended from participation after disrupting the legislature with tear gas. Others left and only one remained at the election commission.

“With the greatest pleasure, with the highest responsibility, I will serve to everyone and be willing to cooperate with everyone, including the political parties and every segment of the Kosovan society,” Thaci told The Associated Press.

The opposition has been disrupting the chamber since last September with attacks involving tear gas, pepper spray, whistles and water bottles to reject a deal between Kosovo and Serbia giving more powers to ethnic Serbs in Kosovo. In December, the Constitutional Court ruled that the agreement needed to be amended to conform to the constitution.

The opposition also rejects a border demarcation pact with Montenegro. “Someone who has violated the constitution cannot be Kosovo’s president,” the leader of the main opposition Self-Determination Movement Party, Visar Ymeri, said at a news conference.

The prospect of a Thaci-presidency has prompted thousands of opposition supporters to protest in the capital of Pristina, many hundreds of whom have been camping out in tents in the capital’s Skanderbeg Square.

After learning that Thaci won the election, they threw Molotov cocktails and rocks outside Parliament, injuring 21 officers, police said. Police responded with tear gas and water guns to disperse them and five protesters were arrested. Officers also started to remove the tents raised at the Skanderbeg Square and blocked traffic on some streets surrounding Parliament.

Police said they found 39 Molotov cocktails and 38 other bottles with color paint by the tents. Molotov cocktails were also thrown against Prime Minister Isa Mustafa’s home, according to police. Meanwhile, hundreds of Thaci’s supporters celebrated his election walking along the capital’s streets holding Kosovo, U.S. and Albanian flags and shouting his name while firecrackers lit the sky.

Many leading figures within the opposition were partners with Thaci — a former guerrilla leader — during the war, but later turned against him, accusing him of being power-hungry and corrupt. Critics also say the 47-year-old, who led the fighters of Kosovo’s successful separatist war against Serbia in 1998-99, is not a unifying individual, which is what the Kosovo constitution requires.

“Thaci’s election has closed that door,” said Fatmir Limaj, one of his former close associates now in opposition, referring to attempts by incumbent President Ahtifete Jahjaga to resolve the political crisis.

Kosovo declared independence in 2008, although that is rejected by Serbia. As president, Thaci would deal with a special war crimes court created last year, which will have international judges and prosecutors try ethnic Albanian guerrillas for the alleged killing of civilian detainees, mostly Serbs, immediately after the war ended in 1999.

Thaci was mentioned in a 2010 Council of Europe report which claimed that leaders of the now disbanded Kosovo Liberation Army were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Serbs, Roma and ethnic Albanians suspected of collaborating with Serbs.

Thaci denies the claims. Thaci has resigned as leader of the Democratic Party of Kosovo as required for his five-year term.

Llazar Semini in Tirana, Albania, and Gresa Kraja in Pristina, Kosovo, contributed to this report.