Kosovo trial clears Serbia leader

Serbian ex-President Milan Milutinovic has been acquitted on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Kosovo by a UN war crimes tribunal, BBC reported.

Five former top Serbian officials were found guilty on some or all of the charges relating to the 1990s conflict.

They include ex-Yugoslav deputy prime minister Nikola Sainovic and former Yugoslav army chief of staff and defence minister Dragoljub Ojdanic.

The sentences handed down at The Hague range from 15 to 22 years.

It was the court's first ruling on alleged crimes by Serbian forces in the Kosovo conflict.

The other defendants found guilty were ex-Yugoslav army generals Nebojsa Pavkovic and Vladimir Lazarevic and former Serbian police public security service chief Sreten Lukic.

The men had all denied the charges.

The court ordered the release of Mr Milutinovic, 66, who was seen largely as a figurehead president of Serbia during the conflict in Kosovo.

Ojdanic, who was found guilty on some counts, was sentenced to 15 years in jail.

His fellow defendants were found guilty on all counts, with Sainovic sentenced to 22 years in prison, Pavkovic to 22 years, Lazarevic to 15 years and Lukic to 22 years.

Prosecutors at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) accused them of participating "in an alleged campaign of terror and violence directed against Kosovo Albanians and other non-Serbs in Kosovo during 1999".

"The crimes... include the deportation and forcible transfer of several hundred thousand people, as well as the murder and persecution of thousands of Kosovo Albanians," the court said in a statement.

At the time of the conflict in Kosovo, real power lay in the hands of Mr Milutinovic's mentor, Slobodan Milosevic, the then-president of Yugoslavia.

    
(From top-left) Nebojsa Pavkovic, Milan Milutinovic, Dragoljub Ojdanic; (from bottom-left) Sreten Lukic, Nikola Sainovic and Vladimir Lazarevic (file)

Milosevic died in tribunal custody in 2006, before a verdict was delivered in his own trial, giving this trial much greater significance, says BBC correspondent Helen Fawkes in Belgrade.

The trial of Mr Milutinovic and his fellow defendants was the largest case at the ICTY to have reached this stage.

During the trial, which began in July 2006, UN prosecutors called 113 witnesses to testify against them, while defence lawyers called 118.

Prosecution witnesses testified that Serb forces shelled towns and villages during the Kosovo conflict in 1999, murdered civilians and raped women as they were driven from their homes.

Although Mr Milutinovic was indicted during the conflict, he served out his full five-year term as president until the end of 2002.

It was only after he lost his immunity as president that he surrendered.

In total, the ICTY has indicted nine of the most senior Serb and Yugoslav officials for crimes alleged to have been carried out in Kosovo by Serb forces in 1999.

Vlajko Stojiljkovic, a senior police official close to Milosevic, was indicted but committed suicide in Belgrade in 2002. Vlastimir Dordevic, the former chief of Serbia's Public Security Department and a fugitive until his arrest in June 2007, went on trial on 27 January.

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