PRISTINA, Kosovo: In 2005, just after arriving in The Hague to face charges for alleged war crimes, Ramush Haradinaj found himself face to face with Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian strongman, who was being held in a nearby cell.
For Haradinaj, a former commander of the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army and a squat hulk of a man who had fought a guerrilla war against Milosevic's forces, the encounter was a shock.
"Milosevic asked if I was Haradinaj in English and said, 'How are you? How do you like it here? How is it going there in Kosovo?"' recalled Haradinaj, who was acquitted on 37 counts of crimes against humanity and released from The Hague in April after the court found that evidence was too weak to tie him directly to the killings of which he had been accused.
"I replied that Europe was going to help build a state in Kosovo, with America taking care of our security," he continued. "He was very polite. But he didn't like my answer and he left. I didn't feel like a loser in this story, because I was a member of the winning team."
But when Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leaders finally declared independence last February, Haradinaj's sense of triumph was tempered by his being forced to watch from prison.
Now, Haradinaj, 40, who was prime minister of UN-administered Kosovo for 100 days before surrendering to The Hague in March 2005, is vowing to lead the newborn country once again.
"We have a huge mess," he said at his sprawling mansion on a hill overlooking Pristina, Kosovo's capital. "There are people with no water for their toilets. There is no electricity. I am the one who can deliver. I want to be the next prime minister of this country. There is no doubt about that."
Celebrated as a freedom fighter among ethnic Albanians in Kosovo and reviled by Serbs, who nicknamed him "Rambo" for his indestructibility, Haradinaj received a hero's welcome when he returned home. In northern Kosovo, Serbs burned judges' robes to show their contempt.
"Haradinaj's release is a gross injustice and undermines the whole Hague process," said Vuk Jeremic, Serbia's young and pro-European foreign minister.
At the outset of Haradinaj's trial, Carla Del Ponte, The Hague's former chief prosecutor, who indicted Haradinaj on charges including the murder, torture, rape and expulsion of Serbs, Albanians and gypsies, called him a "gangster in uniform" with blood on his hands. Lawyers and judges on the court complained that witness intimidation had been widespread. Prosecutors have indicated that they plan to appeal.
Haradinaj made little effort to conceal his contempt for Del Ponte, who in a recent book linked the Kosovo Liberation Army to an alleged organ-trafficking scheme in which Serbian and Albanian civilians were abducted in Kosovo and taken to Albania, where their organs were extracted before they were killed.
"Del Ponte spent eight years as the chief prosecutor, and her duty was to bring the truth," Haradinaj said. "Instead, she was self-preoccupied with how she looks and how she is perceived by the public." Asked about the organ allegations, he declined to reply.
Haradinaj said that going overnight from the post of prime minister to detention had been difficult. To pass the time, former warriors convened a cooking club. Milosevic cooked cevapi, little Balkan meatballs.
The onetime guerrilla, more at home with an AK-47, said he did not know how to cook. "I was scared to have so much time just sitting, sitting," he recalled.
"But the battlefield was worse than The Hague. There, you saw your brothers killed every day."
Haradinaj has had a life marked by struggle, loss, violence and bloodshed. Two of his brothers were killed during fighting with Serbian soldiers. A third was killed in his car in 2005.
Haradinaj said he became convinced that armed struggle was the only way to overcome Serbian domination as early as age 14, when he saw the Serbian police beating young Albanian demonstrators. "I saw that they were beating them because they had the guns and were the strong ones," he said. "I realized then that we needed to be even stronger."
In 1989, the year Milosevic stripped away Kosovo's autonomy, Haradinaj emigrated to Switzerland, where he spent nine years working as a nightclub bouncer and in construction. He said he began to prepare for the physical exertion of the battlefield by studying kung fu, reading books on guerrilla tactics and doing 100-kilometer, or 60-mile, runs in the Alps. He returned to Kosovo in early 1998, as Albanian guerrillas and Serbian forces began to clash, and established himself as commander of his home Dukagjini region.
During his first days of battle, he saw his younger brother Luan killed while the two were crossing from Albania to Kosovo. He said he carried his brother's body for four hours on his back until he could bury him.
In March 1998, Milosevic's forces tried to kill Haradinaj and his family at their compound in Gllogjan, in west Kosovo. He was shot seven times, he recalled, but survived, thanks to a set of keys in his breast pocket, which deflected a potentially lethal bullet.
Kosovo Liberation Army soldiers who had fought alongside Haradinaj said he inspired deep loyalty through charisma, supreme self-confidence and fearlessness. Ramush Ahmeti, a fighter in his unit, recalled that when some soldiers sang patriotic anthems to prepare for battle, Haradinaj would silence them and encourage them to run laps instead.
Yet when another of Haradinaj's brothers, Shkelzen, was killed in 1999 and his fighters were broken and demoralized, Ahmeti said, Haradinaj suddenly broke into a partisan song. "He was singing to try to prevent us from breaking down," Ahmeti said. "We would die for him because he was willing to die for us."
After NATO intervened in the war in 1999 and Serbian forces withdrew, Haradinaj - by then legendary in Kosovo - earned a law degree from Pristina University. Fellow students said they had been shocked to find the former warrior with them in the classroom. Haradinaj, who did not go to college, also taught himself English, French and German and became a wine connoisseur.
Yet violence dogged him. On July 7, 2000, he led some men to a rival family's house in western Kosovo. A battle broke out, according to the police, and Haradinaj was wounded with a grenade. He was never prosecuted.
After helping to disarm the Kosovo Liberation Army and establish it as a civilian force, which Western diplomats say helped bring stability to the province, he set up a political party, the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo. In elections in October 2004, his party finished third and Haradinaj became prime minister of a coalition government.
Western diplomats say he was an intelligent and energetic leader. In March 2004, when ethnic Albanians rioted across Kosovo, he was credited with preventing hundreds from attacking Kosovo's best-known Serbian Orthodox monastery.
While he was in prison last year, Haradinaj had to watch as his archrival, Hashim Thaci, a former political leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army, emerged as prime minister. A few weeks ago, an armed assailant tried to shoot his way into Thaci's residence and two of his brothers were attacked, according to the police. Some in Thaci's camp blamed Haradinaj, who denied involvement.
Vlora Qitaku, a spokeswoman for Thaci's party, said Haradinaj was a political has-been whose party had lost the past five elections. "We are trying to build a new democracy, and we will not allow Ramush to turn Kosovo into a jungle."
Haradinaj lashed out at the government and the West for allowing Belgrade to control the Serb-dominated north, and warned that Albanians would grow impatient.
"We have to be able to deliver on Feb. 17," he said, referring to the date of independence. "I know what patience means, but if you sleep, it's not good. It can be too late."