By Thomas Escritt
THE HAGUE (Reuters) - International judges on Thursday acquitted two former Serbian secret police officials of involvement in war crimes committed in Bosnia and Croatia, in a ruling welcomed by Serbia but received with disbelief by victims of wartime atrocities.
The acquittal means no Belgrade government official has been convicted of crimes committed during the war in Bosnia, which claimed more than 100,000 lives over three years to 1995.
Judges at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) said prosecutors had not proven that Jovica Stanisic, a close ally of late Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, intended to have paramilitary units commit crimes against humanity.
They said units guided and trained by Stanisic and his co-accused, the counter-intelligence official Franko Simatovic, had murdered civilians and subjected them to forced deportation with the aim of purging large swathes of Bosnia and Croatia of its non-Serb population
But they said prosecutors had not proven that the pair had intended for these units, which included the Red Berets and the Skorpions, to commit the crimes.
"The chamber found the prosecution had not proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused planned or ordered the crimes," Alphons Orie, president of the three-judge panel, said.
Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic welcomed the ruling.
"The Serbian government has always insisted that all suspects before the Hague tribunal should receive a fair trial," Dacic told Reuters, praising the ICTY for helping to establish the truth about the conflict in the former Yugoslavia.
But the ruling, which acknowledged that Stanisic had wanted to establish Serb control over "large areas of Croatia and Bosnia", perplexed some in Bosnia.
"It seems that victims and the determination of the facts and truth have become ever less important for the Hague tribunal," Nidzara Ahmetasevic, a Bosnian war-crimes researcher, said.
Nihad Kljucanin, a Bosnian Muslim who was beaten in a Serb-run camp, hoped the acquittal would be overturned on appeal.
"Serbia cannot get an amnesty for the crimes that were committed in Bosnia and Herzegovina," he said.
The acquittals are the latest in a string of setbacks for prosecutors at the tribunal. Earlier this year, the Serbian general Momsilo Perisic was aquitted of war crimes in Bosnia and Croatia on appeal. That followed the acquittal last year of Croatian general Ante Gotovina.
Milosevic, indicted for crimes committed in Bosnia and Croatia as well as for later crimes in Kosovo, died in custody in The Hague in 2006, before his trial could be completed.
(Reporting By Thomas Escritt, additional reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic and Daria Sito-Sucic; Editing by Michael Roddy)