THE HAGUE — Fatmir Limaj, a senior officer of the Kosovo Albanian rebels, was acquitted Wednesday of charges of torturing and murdering ethnic Serbian and ethnic Albanian civilians at a prison camp during the 1998-99 war.
A second defendant, Isak Musliu, also was acquitted, but a third, Haradin Balaj, was sentenced to 13 years in prison for executing nine prisoners in the woods in July 1998.
All three had pleaded innocent on all charges at the U.N.'s Yugoslav war crimes tribunal.
Several dozen friends, family and supporters applauded and roared in approval as Limaj's acquittal was announced. In Kosovo, where he is considered a hero, celebratory gunfire echoed through the Serbian province's capital, Pristina, and drivers honked their horns.
Kosovo President Ibrahim Rugova hailed the court's decision, saying it proved "the righteousness of the war for liberation and independence by ethnic Albanians" in Kosovo.
"We are delighted," said Hashim Thaci, the former leader of the ethnic Albanian rebel force. Thaci now heads the opposition Democratic Party of Kosovo, of which Limaj is a member. "It is a victory for Limaj, for citizens of Kosovo," Thaci said.
Serbian leaders in Kosovo criticized the ruling, saying it would further undermine Serbs' trust in the international community.
It was the first trial of members of the Kosovo Liberation Army, which fought for independence from Serbia, then a province of Yugoslavia under President Slobodan Milosevic.
The chief suspect, Limaj, 34, a former KLA commander, was accused of running the Lapusnik prison camp, about 15 miles west of Pristina.
"It has not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused Fatmir Limaj had any role in the prison camp or in the execution in the Berishe mountains," presiding Judge Kevin Parker said.
The court found that crimes were committed at the camp. But it said the prosecution failed to link Limaj to inhumane treatment, torture and murder.
The camp was abandoned in July 1998 during an assault by Serbian forces, and about 20 detainees were taken to the nearby mountains under a KLA escort.
Balaj was convicted for his role in the execution of nine prisoners, but the court said his sentence of 13 years in prison reflected his low rank.
Kosovo remains an autonomous part of Serbia and Montenegro, but it has been administered by a United Nations mission and patrolled by peacekeepers led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.