THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — A U.N. court on Thursday acquitted two former allies of late Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic of setting up and arming notorious Serb paramilitary gangs that committed atrocities in Bosnia and Croatia during the Balkan wars in the 1990s, a verdict that further distanced Belgrade from rebel Serb crimes elsewhere in the region.
The verdicts at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal came just three months after appeals judges at the tribunal acquitted the former chief of the Yugoslav National Army of aiding and abetting atrocities by rebel Serbs in Bosnia. Both rulings support Belgrade's often-stated assertion that it didn't deliberately assist in atrocities committed by rebel Serbs in Bosnia and Croatia.
Serbia's prime minister, Ivica Dacic, quickly welcomed the acquittal.
"The Serbian government has always supported fair trials before the tribunal, because fair trials are the only way to establish the truth about the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, start the process of reconciliation and create conditions for lasting stability in the region," Dacic said in Belgrade.
Prosecutors had demanded life sentences for the two men acquitted, Jovica Stanisic and Franko Simatovic.
Stanisic, 62, was head of Serbia's state security service until Milosevic fired him in 1998. Simatovic, 63, was his deputy and headed the agency's special operations arm.
In a majority decision, the three-judge panel ruled that Serb fighters did commit crimes in Croatia and Bosnia, but that there was insufficient evidence linking Stanisic and Simatovic to the crimes.
"The chamber found that the prosecution had not proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused planned or ordered the crimes charged in the indictment," Presiding Judge Alphons Orie said.
Explaining the complex judgment, the tribunal said in a statement that two of the three judges were "unable to conclude that the accused shared the intent to further the common criminal purpose" of an alleged criminal plan to drive non-Serbs out of large parts of Bosnia and Croatia. Judge Michele Picard of France dissented.
Neither man showed any emotion as Presiding Judge Alphons Orie ordered them freed, but they later hugged their lawyers before leaving the courtroom. Both men will be taken back to the court's detention unit before being released.
Stanisic's lawyer, Wayne Jordash, said his client would likely return to Belgrade on Friday.
It was "the right result and Mr. Stanisic is very happy and he can get on with his life," Jordash said outside the court, which is formally called the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia or ICTY.
"The ICTY has shown today that it can consider evidence, apply a standard and burden of proof and deliver justice," he added.
Prosecutors can appeal the acquittals.
Milosevic was named at the trial as part of the alleged criminal plan to drive non-Serbs out of parts of Bosnia and Croatia. Milosevic himself died in his U.N. cell in 2006 before judges in his long-running trial could reach verdicts on charges that he fomented violence throughout the Balkans in the 1990s.
Murat Tahirovic, of a group called the Association of Victims and Witnesses of Genocide, said he was shocked by the acquittals.
"Everyone from Bosnia or Croatia knows what these men's involvement was during the conflict," he said.
Natasa Kandic, a prominent human rights activist in Belgrade, also said she was surprised.
"The explanation of the verdict given by the tribunal is in total contradiction to the facts that are absolutely clear," Kandic said. "Based on this verdict, we can conclude that (military or paramilitary) units in Serbia were formed by themselves, without permission and backing by anyone."
Associated Press writer Jovana Gec in Belgrade and video journalist Alex Furtula in The Hague contributed to this story.