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Published: Thursday February 6, 2014 MYT 2:50:02 AM
Updated: Thursday February 6, 2014 MYT 2:50:54 AM

Italy's Kosovo embassy embroiled in organised crime sweep

PRISTINA (Reuters) - The son of the late leader of Kosovo's fight for independence, Ibrahim Rugova, was among 10 people arrested on Wednesday by European Union police on suspicion of organised crime involving the Italian embassy.

The EU's law and order mission in the young Balkan state said charges included organised crime, trading in influence and fraud against Italy's diplomatic mission in the capital, Pristina.

Local media reports said the group was suspected of selling coveted Schengen visas issued by the embassy.

Speaking to Reuters, Italian ambassador Andreas Ferrarese declined to confirm or deny media reports that local embassy staff were among those arrested.

"I cannot enter into details because there is a problem of privacy and also a problem to protect the investigation," he said, speaking in English.

He said the embassy was working to clarify the situation and was cooperating with the EU police and justice mission EULEX, in which it had full confidence.

Wearing black masks, EU police raided the home of Uke Rugova, formerly the residence of late Kosovo President Ibrahim Rugova until his death in 2006. Uke Rugova is now a member of the Kosovo parliament as part of the governing coalition.

"Early this morning, an international prosecutor ... conducted an arrest and search operation against 10 defendants allegedly involved in an organised criminal group suspected of committing various offences," the EU mission said in a statement.

It named Uke Rugova as one of those arrested. It had no immediate comment about reports concerning the Schengen visas.

Rugova's lawyer Bajram Tmava told Reuters: "I have visited him at the detention centre and he absolutely denies any wrongdoing."

His father led the Kosovo Albanian struggle for freedom from Serbia through the 1990s, before his pacifist approach was eclipsed by a guerrilla insurgency. NATO bombed in 1999 to halt a wave of ethnic cleansing by Serbian forces and Kosovo declared independence in 2008.

A landlocked and impoverished country of 1.7 million people, Kosovo is the only country in the Western Balkans to still require visas to enter Europe's borderless Schengen zone.

For many, a Schengen visa opens the door to a possible longer-term stay inside the EU and eventually the chance to work and send money home.

(Editing by Matt Robinson and Alison Williams)

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