SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) — Tens of thousands of people gathered in Macedonia's capital Thursday to welcome home a former police officer who served eight years in prison for committing war crimes during a 2001 insurgency by ethnic Albanian militants.
Johan Tarculovski was greeted at the airport in Skopje by relatives as well as conservative Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and other government officials. His return was broadcast live on television.
The 39-year-old was convicted by a U.N. tribunal in 2008 for the murder of three ethnic Albanian civilians and the destruction of 12 homes during a police raid on a village near the end of the six-month insurgency. He was released from a prison in Germany this week after serving eight years of a 12-year sentence.
Large billboards and posters bearing the words "Welcome home Johan" were draped over building fronts and placed in public bus windows in the capital, where Tarculovski's supporters gathered from around the country to attend an outdoor welcoming party.
Earlier, at Skopje's Alexander the Great Airport, supporters chanted Tarculovski's name and waved red-and-yellow Macedonian flags after he arrived on a government plane.
Tarculovski was the only Macedonian to be convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, based at The Hague in the Netherlands. His conviction is a source of resentment among many in the country's Slavic-speaking majority.
Macedonia broke away peacefully from the Yugoslavia in 1991 but was rocked by the insurgency that claimed some 200 lives a decade later. An internationally brokered peace agreement granted state job quotas and other rights to ethnic Albanians who make up a quarter of the country's 2.1 million people.
The government has filed four unsuccessful petitions at the Hague tribunal against former ethnic Albanian rebels it accused of committing war crimes. The cases were also eventually dropped by local courts due to amnesty provisions of the 2001 ceasefire agreement.
"Macedonians have never accepted the U.N. tribunal findings that only Macedonians were responsible for the conflict," Pavle Trajanov, a former interior minister, said in a television interview.
Albert Musliu, an ethnic Albanian political analyst, said there was a sense of disappointment in the minority community.
"I would understand if his return was celebrated by his family, friends, and fellow fighters from 2001," he told The Associated Press. "The question is whether all this deserved such a huge celebration that included government officials. I'm a little disappointed that such celebration was held for the man who was sentenced for war crimes against civilians of this country."
After arriving home, Tarculovski laid a wreath at a monument for those killed in the ethnic conflict.
"I express my gratitude to all those who gave their lives and defended Macedonia," he told supporters. "Thank you all for the support. It meant everything to me. Long live Macedonia."
Tarculovski was convicted over an attack on August 12, 2001, at the village of Ljuboten, in northern Macedonia, which government forces said was being used as a staging post for insurgent attacks.