Kosovars are celebrating a U.N. court's acquittal of former prime minister Ramush Haradinaj and two of his associates of war crimes, while Serbia has expressed outrage at the verdict.
The Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia on Thursday cleared Haradinaj, Idriz Balaj and Lahi Brahimaj of all charges and ordered their immediate release. Cheers went up in the courtroom when the verdict was announced.
After the ruling, Haradinaj, who is considered a national hero by most ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, returned to Pristina, where he was greeted by Prime Minister Hashim Thaci and jubilant crowds.
But the verdict has enraged Serbia, which has accused the tribunal of bias against Serbs. It comes less than two weeks after the Hague-based court cleared two Croatian generals, Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac, of war crimes against Serbs during a key battle for Croatia's independence.
Prosecutors had alleged that during the fighting in Kosovo in the late 1990s, the men were part of a joint enterprise that abducted and tortured 16 civilians, and ultimately killed eight of them.
Haradinaj was a former commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army, a group prosecutors said wanted to establish control in western Kosovo by removing all Serbs, Roma and other civilians opposed to the group from the area.
The rights group Amnesty International reiterated its call for justice for all the victims in the Kosovo war and their relatives, saying Thursday's verdict raises the question that if the three are not guilty, then who committed the crimes?
The judgment clears the way for Haradinaj to return to politics in Kosovo, where he stepped down as prime minister in 2005 after serving 100 days in office.
The ruling could complicate talks between Kosovo and Serbia. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, and is recognized as an independent state by around 90 nations. Serbia insists that Kosovo remains a Serbian province.
The trial was the first ever partial retrial by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Haradinaj and Balaj were acquitted in a 2008 trial, while Brahimaj was sentenced to six years in prison. The Hague Appeals Chamber ordered all three to be tried again, saying the first trial was plagued with witness intimidation.