By Ellie Tzortzi
BELGRADE, April 3 (Reuters) - The acquittal of a former Kosovo guerrilla leader accused of war crimes against Serbs was a mockery of justice, Serbia said on Thursday.
The United Nations tribunal in The Hague cleared Ramush Haradinaj, former Kosovo prime minister and commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), of charges he had killed and expelled Serb civilians during the 1998-99 war.
"Today’s dark decision by the Hague tribunal shows that the purpose of that court is not justice," said Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, a champion of Serbia’s claim to Kosovo who has previously accused The Hague of bias against Serbs.
"This is a new, major crime on top of Haradinaj’s crimes. With this ruling the tribunal mocks justice and the innocent victims who suffered at Haradinaj’s hands."
The decision was expected to inflame nationalist passions in Serbia — already fanned by Kosovo’s Western-backed secession in February — and may boost the hardline vote in a May election.
Analysts say it would also make it harder for any government to justify the delivery to The Hague of remaining ethnic Serb war crimes fugitives — a European Union condition for offering Serbia a pact on closer ties.
Minister for Kosovo, Slobodan Samardzic, said the ruling was "catastrophic" and would "have political, moral and legal consequences". In Kosovo, moderate Kosovo Serb political leader Oliver Ivanovic said the verdict was "scandalous".
"Someone must be guilty for the kidnapping and killing of more than 1,000 Serbs," he told Reuters.
The ruling was met with anger in the Kosovo Serb stronghold of north Mitrovica, the focal point of Serb resistance to the new state. Some 120,000 Serbs remain in Kosovo among two million Albanians, most still looking to Belgrade as their government.
"This is the true face of the Hague tribunal and proof it is a political court created with the aim of humiliating the Serb people," sad bank employee Miki Jovanovic.
The ruling was condemned even by moderate politicians who usually support The Hague’s role in punishing the crimes of the Yugoslav wars and helping countries face up to their past.
"This is a black day for justice," said deputy PM Bozidar Djelic of the pro-Western Democratic Party. "The acquittal is a scandal, a blow to the international justice system."
The ruling could mean more votes for the nationalist Radicals, now neck and neck in polls with the Democrats. The previous government fell over whether Serbia should pursue EU membership despite the bloc’s support for Kosovo’s secession.
"Mistrust of the tribunal’s decisions will translate into mistrust of the West, boosting support for nationalists," said political analyst Milan Nikolic.
Dragan Bujosevic, a political analyst and columnist, said the acquittal will be an issue in the election campaign.
"Ninety-nine percent of Serbs believe Haradinaj is a war criminal," he said, and it will be hard for pro-Western parties to explain why Serbs should satisfy The Hague and the EU’s conditions. (Aadditional reporting by Ivana Sekularac, Branislav Krstic, Matt Robinson, editing by Myra MacDonald)