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Former Kosovo Prime Minister Acquitted of War Crimes

Kosovo's former Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj has been acquitted of all charges by judges at the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. He and two former Commanders of the Kosovo Liberation Army had been charged with murdering, raping, torturing and persecuting Serbs and their perceived collaborators in 1998. Lauren Comiteau reports from Amsterdam.

Clapping and cheers erupted from a packed public gallery as Judge Alphonse Orie read the verdict for Kosovo's former Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj.

"The chamber finds you Mr. Haradinaj not guilty and therefore acquits you of all counts," he said. "Could I have quiet please? Acquits you of all counts against you in the indictment."

Judges said they found it difficult "to conclude whether a crime was committed or whether the KLA was involved" based on the prosecution's evidence, which they called "insufficient," "vague, inconclusive, or nonexistent" on almost all of the 37 counts. That includes the 30 bodies found in a canal that prosecutors allege were victims of the KLA, but which judges ruled were inconclusive.

Also charged were KLA commanders Lahi Brahimaj and Idriz Balaj. Prosecutors said the accused were part of a joint criminal enterprise to gain control of parts of Kosovo by getting rid of Serbs, Romas and any of their collaborators - real or perceived.

Only Brahimaj was convicted of torture and cruel treatment against two victims. He was sentenced to six years in prison.

Balaj was acquitted, but ordered returned to Kosovo to complete a 15-year prison sentence handed down in 2002 in a separate case.

Judge Orie pointed out that getting evidence in this case was an uphill battle for prosecutors.

"The chamber gained the strong impression that the trial was being held in an atmosphere where witnesses felt unsafe," he said.

About one-third of the 100 prosecution witnesses received protective measures and another one-fifth of them had to be subpoenaed to testify. Two of them have been arrested and are being held in contempt of court for refusing to testify.

A spokeswoman says prosecutors are "quite" disappointed by the verdict, which they will study before deciding whether to appeal. She says prosecutors were not able to present all the evidence they wanted in the case in which defense lawyers did not call any witnesses.

Many Serbs are also likely to be unhappy with the verdict. Aleksandar Petrovic grew up in Belgrade, but now lives in Amsterdam.

"I think this is the logical outcome of pro-western court, which is made to demonize Serbs, not Albanians," said Petrovic. "And this is a pure example of it. I did not expect anything else but that."

When Ramush Haradinaj turned himself into this court three years ago, he was prime minister of a province struggling for independence from Serbia. He will go home later this week to a newly independent nation, where analysts predict he will be considered more of a hero now than he was before he left.