By ANTHONY DEUTSCH, Associated Press WriterWed Nov 30, 4:19 PM ET
The Yugoslav war crimes tribunal acquitted a senior officer of the Kosovo Albanian rebels Wednesday of torturing and murdering ethnic Serbian and Albanian civilians at a prison camp during the 1998-1999 war.
Several dozen friends, family and supporters applauded and roared in approval as Fatmir Limaj's acquittal was announced.
A second defendant, Isak Musliu, was also acquitted, while the third, Haradin Bala, was sentenced to 13 years in prison for executing nine prisoners in the woods in July 1998. All three pleaded innocent on all charges.
In Kosovo, where Limaj is considered a hero, celebratory gunfire echoed through the Serbian province's capital, Pristina, and drivers honked their horns.
Kosovo President Ibrahim Rugova hailed the court's decision, saying it proves "the righteousness of the war for liberation and independence by ethnic Albanians" in Kosovo.
"We are delighted," said Hashim Thaci, the former leader of the ethnic Albanian rebel force who now heads the opposition Democratic Party, of which Limaj is a member. "It is a victory for Limaj, for citizens of Kosovo," Thaci said.
Serb leaders in Kosovo criticized the ruling, saying it will further undermine Serb trust in the international community.
It was the 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 chief suspect, Limaj, 34, a former KLA commander, was accused of running the Lapusnik prison camp, about 15 miles west of Pristina.
"It has not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused Fatmir Limaj had any role in the prison camp or in the execution in the Berishe mountains or that he has criminal responsibility for any offenses for which he is charged," presiding judge Kevin Parker said.
The court found that crimes were committed at the camp, which held ethnic Serbs and ethnic Albanians suspected of collaboration. But it said the prosecution failed to link Limaj to beatings, inhumane treatment, torture and murder.
Most prisoners were "detained in either a very small basement storage room or another very small room used as a cow shed," Parker said. "In the cow shed, most detainees were chained to the wall and unable to move."
The camp was abandoned in late July 1998 during an assault by Serbian forces, and about 20 detainees were taken to the nearby mountains under a KLA escort.
Bala was convicted for his role in the execution of nine prisoners, but the court said his sentence of 13 years in prison reflected his low rank.
"You were acting as a soldier under orders in releasing some prisoners and executing nine of them. You did not do this on your own initiative or decision. While that does not excuse your conduct it affects the degree of the seriousness of your conduct," Parker said.
The war in Kosovo ended after a 78-day NATO bombing campaign against Serbia that forced Milosevic to pull Serbian troops out of Kosovo in 1999. Milosevic, who was indicted for crimes against humanity in Kosovo, has built his defense on the argument that he was defending Serbs from a terrorist campaign conducted by the KLA.
Kosovo technically remains an autonomous part of Serbia-Montenegro, the union that has replaced Yugoslavia, and since the war has been administered a U.N. mission and patrolled by NATO-led peacekeepers.
The U.N. war crimes court so far has brought charges against six ethnic Albanian rebels, including Kosovo's former prime minister Ramush Haradinaj.