PRISTINA, Serbia-Montenegro (AP) - A senior ethnic Albanian rebel was set to return to Kosovo Thursday after the U.N. war crimes tribunal acquitted him of torturing and murdering civilians during the 1999 conflict in the province.
On Wednesday, the court acquitted chief defendant Fatmir Limaj and another former rebel, Isak Musliu. The third defendant, Haradin Bala, was sentenced to 13 years in prison for executing nine prisoners in the woods in July 1998.
It was tribunal's first trial of members of the NATO-backed Kosovo Liberation Army, which fought for independence from the Serbian state led by President Slobodan Milosevic. The three men were arrested in February 2003.
Wednesday's verdict also marked the first time the U.N. tribunal has ruled in a case involving crimes committed during the Kosovo war.
The court found that crimes were committed at the camp, which held Serbs and ethnic Albanians suspected of collaboration. But it said the prosecution failed to link Limaj to beatings, inhumane treatment, torture and murder.
Limaj's supporters in Kosovo fired celebratory gunfire and drivers honked their horns at the news of his acquittal, which was hailed by the ethnic Albanian leadership and criticized by the province's Serb minority.
The war in Kosovo ended after NATO's aerial bombing campaign against Serbia forced Milosevic to pull his troops out of the region in 1999. The province technically remains part of Serbia-Montenegro, the loose union that has replaced the former Yugoslav federation, but has been administered a U.N. mission and patrolled by NATO-led peacekeepers since mid-1999.
Meanwhile, police closed the road passing through the Serb enclave of Gracanica, just outside Pristina, after local inhabitants stoned vehicles driving through, police said. There were reports of injuries and several vehicles were damaged, officers said.