By Fatos Bytyci
PRISTINA (Reuters) - A Kosovo Albanian politician and close ally of Prime Minister Hashim Thaci was acquitted of war crimes on Wednesday after the case against him collapsed with the suicide of the central prosecution witness.
Fatmir Limaj, a senior guerrilla fighter during the 1998-99 Kosovo war, and three co-defendants were accused of killing and torturing Serbs and fellow ethnic Albanians in the most high- profile case to be tried in the Balkan country.
They were found not guilty by a panel of three judges, two foreign and one local, in the Kosovo capital, Pristina. Six others from the same group of ex-guerrillas were acquitted last month.
The case against them was compiled by a prosecutor from the European Union's police and justice mission in Kosovo.
Much of it was based on the testimony and diaries of Agim Zogaj, a former prison guard for the guerrillas described in court documents as Witness X.
The EU mission sent Zogaj to Germany under a witness protection scheme, but in September last year he was found dead there, hanging from a tree in a park. His family said Zogaj had repeatedly received threats before leaving Kosovo. German authorities said he had killed himself.
After his death, the court dismissed Zogaj's evidence.
Critics said the case highlighted in the starkest terms the culture of witness intimidation that has long hampered the justice system in the impoverished country of 1.7 million people, where clan loyalties run deep and former guerrillas enjoy hero status.
Limaj, a former transport minister in Kosovo's previous government, hailed the verdict.
"Today's verdict shows that our liberation war was a right and pure war, serving humanity not only on behalf of our nation but for the whole region," he told reporters.
The prosecution said it would appeal.
NATO went to war over Kosovo in 1999, bombing Serbia for 78 days to halt the killing and expulsion of ethnic Albanian civilians by Serb forces fighting to quash the guerrilla insurgency. Albanians make up 90 percent of the population.
After almost nine years as a ward of the United Nations, Kosovo declared independence in 2008 with the backing of the major Western powers, but it continues to be supervised by NATO peacekeepers and the European Union.
The indictment accused Limaj of ordering Zogaj to kill two captured Serb police officers, held during the war in a makeshift prison in the village of Klecka in central Kosovo.
According to the indictment, Zogaj admitted killing the two men, and kept a diary detailing life in the prison, including names of prisoners, dates of capture, releases and executions.
Limaj, who went by the nom de guerre of Celik (Steel), was acquitted in 2005 of similar charges at the United Nations war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague.
Limaj has also been investigated on suspicion of corruption while transport minister in Thaci's previous government, but prosecutors have yet to decide whether to indict him.
(Editing by Matt Robinson; editing by Stephen Nisbet)