THE "ethical dimension" of Robin Cook's foreign policy has come under renewed attack after it emerged that a Kosovo Albanian leader whom the foreign secretary met last week may be linked with war crimes.
On his return from Kosovo, Cook promised that "a principled defence of democracy and human rights" would remain a cornerstone of his foreign policy should he retain his portfolio after the general election.
However, Francis Maude, the shadow foreign secretary, accused him of "encouraging a culture of impunity" by holding talks with Ramush Haradinaj, 32, a former nightclub bouncer and guerrilla commander suspected by United Nations officials of possible involvement in the murder of civilians, and of helping to run smuggling rackets across the province.
A French official said last week he was amazed that Haradinaj, leader of the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo, had been invited to the British residence in Pristina, the capital, during Cook's visit. Cook also spoke to other political leaders and visited British troops protecting the few Serbian villagers still living near Pristina.
Officials familiar with investigations being carried out by the international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia said Haradinaj could face charges over what may be the biggest atrocity carried out by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). Forty civilians were killed during several months in 1998 in the village of Glodjane in western Kosovo, where Haradinaj was then the KLA commander. Many of the bodies - of Serbs, Albanians and gypsies - bore marks of torture.
Moderate Albanians in the Democratic League of Kosovo have implicated Haradinaj in the murders of civilians suspected of collaborating with Serbian forces. But Haradinaj has dismissed accusations of war crimes and treats talk of indictment at the Hague as "propaganda by political opponents".
He was known as a fearless leader by Serbs and international monitors alike. In common with other senior KLA commanders, he was equipped with a satellite phone during Nato airstrikes in 1999, helping the alliance to pinpoint targets.
Haradinaj's linguistic talents have established him as a central figure in post-war Kosovo. He fled Kosovo for Switzerland in 1989 after its autonomy was revoked by Slobodan Milosevic, the then Serbian president, and met radicals while working as a bouncer and martial arts trainer. When the KLA emerged, he returned and established himself as commander of the western Decane region, basing himself in Glodjane, one of his clan's strongholds.
During the fighting, in which he lost two of his three brothers, Haradinaj won a reputation for military prowess. When the UN took charge of the province's administration, he became second-in-command of the Kosovo Protection Corps, the KLA's peacetime incarnation. His brother Daut runs the family fiefdoms.
Diplomats in Pristina said Haradinaj entered politics last year at the behest of Britain and America, which wanted to see the KLA's support base split. "He said it was too early for independence," said a European official introduced to Haradinaj. "He was coached to say what was needed." Last April Haradinaj made a fundraising trip to Washington.
In July he, Daut and other Kosovo Protection Corps members tried to storm the compound of the Musaj clan, longstanding rivals. Injured by a grenade, Haradinaj was taken to an American military hospital in Germany for treatment. UN sources alleged an investigation was suppressed.
Despite his party's strong subsequent showing in local elections, there has been no shortage of warnings about him. "Persistent reports link him to trafficking in petrol and cigarettes between Montenegro and Kosovo," said a report from the International Crisis Group, one of the most respected western think tanks in Kosovo.
The Foreign Office insisted that Haradinaj had been reminded of his democratic responsibilities. "There are periods in the cycle when you're moving to a democratic future from a violent past," said a spokesman. "There are no hard and fast rules on who you should talk to. Until indicted, they are straightforward politicians."
Maude said Cook's conduct beggared belief. "There are a number of serious moderate leaders in Kosovo, so why talk to someone with such a cloud hanging over him?"
Eight Macedonian soldiers were shot dead and two were injured yesterday while patrolling the country's northern border with Kosovo. The attack took place near the village of Vejce, nine miles north of Tetovo, the stronghold of Macedonia's ethnic Albanians, said the Macedonian interior ministry.
It was the first shooting incident since Macedonian security forces quelled a month-long revolt by ethnic Albanians in the north of the country last month.