By Fatos Bytyci
PRISTINA (Reuters) - A court in Kosovo jailed five men on Monday for a total of 54 years for murder and attempted murder in a case stemming from a period of deadly political score-settling after the country's 1998-99 war.
The men were described in witness testimony as members of a shadowy intelligence group that emerged from the guerrilla Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and was affiliated with the political party of Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, a former guerrilla commander.
The case came to light three years ago, when former guerrilla fighter Nazim Bllaca publicly confessed that he and other members of the Kosovo Information Service (SHIK) were responsible for a wave of violence and blackmail between 1999 and 2003.
Their targets were alleged collaborators with Serbia and political opponents of Thaci's Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK), Bllaca said. The PDK has dismissed any links to the case.
Based largely on Bllaca's testimony as a protected witness, two of the accused were found guilty on one count of aggravated murder, two others on one count of attempted aggravated murder and the fifth was convicted of both, the European Union's police and justice mission in Kosovo (EULEX) said in a statement.
The trial was presided over by two EULEX judges and one from Kosovo.
All five defendants had denied any wrongdoing or that they had been part of SHIK. Another former guerrilla fighter, Fahredin Gashi, has already been sentenced to 18 years in jail based on Bllaca's testimony in a separate trial.
SHIK announced in 2008 that it ceased all activity, four months after Kosovo declared independence from Serbia following almost a decade spent in limbo as a ward of the United Nations.
NATO had intervened in 1999 with 11 weeks of air strikes to halt a brutal crackdown on ethnic Albanian civilians by Serbian forces under late strongman Slobodan Milosevic during a two-year counter-insurgency war with the KLA.
The post-war period was marred by spasms of inter-ethnic violence and political murders. (Reporting by Fatos Bytyci; Editing by Matt Robinson and Alison Williams)