Image: Serbia's former President Milan Milutinovic
Srdjan Ilic  /  AP
Serbia's former President Milan Milutinovic on his return from The Hague, Netherlands, on Friday. Milutinovic returned to the country after being acquitted for atrocities in Kosovo.
updated 2/27/2009 5:38:40 PM ET 2009-02-27T22:38:40

Serbia's former President Milan Milutinovic returned to the country Friday after being acquitted by a U.N. court of war crimes in Kosovo.

"I am very pleased to be back in Serbia and my Belgrade," a smiling Milutinovic told reporters at Belgrade airport as he arrived on a regular flight from Amsterdam.

He thanked his family, friends, lawyers and "everybody who believed in my innocence." He refused to comment further.

U.N. judges in The Hague on Thursday cleared Milutinovic of ordering a deadly campaign of terror against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo in 1998-99. But the court convicted five other senior former Serbian officials and handed down sentences of 15-22 years in prison.

The judgment was the first by the court establishing widespread Serb crimes in Kosovo and a criminal plot by Serbia's leadership to drive the ethnic Albanians out of the former Serbian province.

It said that Serb troops under the command of late Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic carried out a campaign of murder, rape and deportations that forced nearly 800,000 ethnic Albanians to flee Kosovo before NATO airstrikes forced a Serb withdrawal in mid-1999.

In Serbia, most politicians criticized Thursday's verdicts as anti-Serb. Prime Minister Mirko Cvetkovic said however, that Serbia supports the work of the Hague tribunal even though he described the sentences as "too harsh."

The judgment also raised fears that Serbia's chances have diminished of proving before the World Court that Kosovo's declaration of independence last year was illegal.

Serbia has asked the Hague-based International Court of Justice for an opinion on the matter. Belgrade hopes the court's ruling would avert further international recognition of Kosovo.

Kosovo's independence has been recognized by the United States and most EU nations, while Russia has backed Serbia in the dispute.

More on Serbia | Kosovo

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