Wednesday, November 30, 2005

UN court acquits two ex-Kosovo rebels

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - The Hague war crimes tribunal acquitted two former rebel Kosovo Albanians of war crimes on Wednesday, one of them -- Fatmir Limaj -- a key figure in the Kosovo Liberation Army, but jailed a third for 13 years.

The acquittals in the tribunal's first judgment on war crimes in Kosovo during the 1998-99 fighting between Serbian forces and the rebel KLA, were greeted with celebrations on the streets of Pristina, the provincial capital.

Limaj, 34, was a senior figure in the KLA and a key ally of ex-KLA commander Hashim Thaci in his Democratic Party of Kosovo, now the main opposition party in the province.

"This is great news," senior government minister Ardian Gjini said of Limaj's release. "Most importantly the court proved that the KLA did not commit systematic crimes against civilians as Serbian forces did," he told Reuters.

Acquitted alongside Limaj was Isak Musliu, also a former member of the now disbanded KLA. The court found Haradin Bala guilty of murder, torture and cruel treatment and sentenced him to 13 years in prison.

The arrest of the three former rebels in early 2003 sparked protests among Kosovo's majority Albanians, who see them as freedom fighters against Serb rule. Violence was feared in Kosovo in the event of guilty verdicts.

Presiding judge Kevin Parker said the prosecution was unable to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Limaj had any role in a prison camp in Lapusnik or that he was criminally responsible for the offences with which he was charged.

There was also little evidence that Musliu, 35, a former KLA guard, had any kind of involvement in the camp, Parker said.

But Parker said the prosecution had proved that Bala, 48, participated in the murder of nine prisoners outside the camp in the Berisa mountains.

He was also found guilty of mistreating three prisoners and aiding in the mistreatment and torture of another prisoner.

(Additional reporting by Shaban Buza in Pristina)

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