BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Serbian far-right leader Vojislav Seselj, accused of recruiting notorious paramilitary forces during the bloody 1990s Balkan wars, arrived home to a boisterous welcome Wednesday after U.N. war crimes judges approved his provisional release due to ill health.
Hundreds of cheering supporters, carrying banners reading "Seselj the Serb Hero" and chanting "Victory! Victory!" greeted him at Belgrade airport after he landed on a flight from Amsterdam.
Judges at the U.N. war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague, Netherlands, released Seselj so he could get medical treatment in Serbia on condition that he does not interfere with victims or witnesses and that he returns to the tribunal if summoned. Serbian doctors who visited the 60-year-old say he is suffering from colon cancer that has spread to his liver.
The firebrand right-wing politician, who once said he would like to gouge out the eyes of rival Croats with a rusty spoon, has been in custody in The Hague since surrendering in 2003. Judges have delayed passing the verdict several times because of different legal obstacles during the often chaotic marathon trial of one of the most outspoken advocates of the Serb war campaigns. One of the three judges was removed from the case, another was chosen and he is reading evidence to see if they can reach a verdict.
Seselj's release triggered outrage in neighboring Bosnia and Croatia.
"The judges are mocking the victims," said Bakira Hasecic, head of a Bosnian association of women raped during the war.
"It's a shame for the whole world to release Seselj without a verdict," said Ruzica Barbaric, a rape victim from the eastern Croatian town of Vukovar, which was overrun by Serb troops, including Seselj's paramilitaries, in 1991. "I personally felt on my skin what his people, these criminals, have done here ... and all of them were Seselj's pupils."
Seselj was charged with planning the capture of towns in Croatia and Bosnia as part of a criminal plot involving other Serb leaders, including former strongman Slobodan Milosevic, to drive out non-Serbs using massive destruction and terror. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
U.N. prosecutors have demanded a 28-year prison sentence for Seselj. They said Seselj's hate speeches at rallies "planted the seeds of ethnic hatred and helped them grow into ethnic violence against non-Serbs."
Associated Press reporters Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, and Aida Cerkez, in Sarajevo, Bosnia, and Jovana Gec contributed to this report.