Serbian court jails nine for 1999 war crimes in Kosovo

BELGRADE (Reuters) - Serbia’s war crimes court jailed nine former members of a Serbian paramilitary group on Tuesday for killing more than 120 ethnic Albanian civilians during the Kosovo conflict in 1999.

The prison terms ranged from two to 20 years, the court said in a statement, though its acquittal of two other defendants drew criticism from the war crimes prosecution team.

All 11 men were former members of a group known as the “Jackals” and had been on trial for mass killings of ethnic Albanians in four villages in Kosovo, then a province of Serbia. The court said the unit had served under the command of the then-Yugoslav Army.

As many as 10,000 people, mainly ethnic Albanians, were killed in the 1998-1999 conflict between the pro-independence guerrillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army and security forces loyal to Serbia’s then-president Slobodan Milosevic.

Another 800,000 were displaced in the conflict, which ended after a NATO bombing campaign ousted Serb forces from Kosovo in 1999. Kosovo gained its independence from Belgrade in 2008.

Serbia’s deputy war crimes prosecutor Bruno Vekaric said he was only partially satisfied with the sentences and said the prosecutor’s office would appeal against the acquittal verdict.

“The pattern of the crime was established, the evidence was clear, the trial paved the way for more indictments but we are displeased over the two acquittals,” Vekaric told Reuters.

Although Belgrade vowed never to recognize Kosovo’s independence, the two governments have made progress in improving ties over the past year, enabling Serbia to open accession talks last month with the European Union.

Domestic war crimes trials of Serbs for atrocities during the Balkan wars of the 1990s only started after Milosevic’s ouster in 2000. He died in 2006 in The Hague while on trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Zoran Radosavljevic and Gareth Jones