By Fatos Bytyci
PRISTINA (Reuters) - A close ally of Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci was acquitted of war crimes by a court in Pristina on Tuesday in a case marked by the suicide in 2011 of the prosecution's chief witness.
The court ruling marked the third time Fatmir Limaj - who went by the nom de guerre of Celik (Steel) - has been cleared of war crimes allegedly committed during a 1998-99 ethnic Albanian guerrilla insurgency in the former Serbian province.
Limaj and Thaci were senior commanders in the guerrilla Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). They entered politics with the end of the war when NATO intervened with 11 weeks of air strikes to drive out Serbian forces and end the massacre and expulsion of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority.
Kosovo declared independence in 2008.
Limaj, a prominent member of Thaci's ruling Democratic Party of Kosovo, stood accused of killing and torturing Serbian prisoners at a KLA-run detention camp.
He was acquitted in May 2012 by a lower court in the capital, Pristina, when the prosecution case collapsed after Agim Zogaj, a protected witness then known only as Witness X, was found dead, hanging from a tree in Germany. His family had faced threats in Kosovo.
Zogaj had been sent there by the European Union's police and justice mission in Kosovo (EULEX), which handles war crimes and corruption cases, for his own protection. A judge declared his testimony and diaries inadmissible as evidence, and the case collapsed; but that ruling was later overturned by the Supreme Court which ordered a retrial.
On Tuesday, the presiding EULEX judge, Malcolm Simons, said that although it had been established that at least seven Serbian civilians had been killed, the prosecution had failed to establish a link with Limaj or his nine co-accused.
Simons said much of Zogaj's diary had been "fabricated", parts had been written by someone else and that his testimony was "contradicted by other evidence".
All 10 defendants were acquitted, to applause from relatives and fellow former KLA fighters in the courtroom. Thaci said the ruling proved "the purity of the Kosovo Liberation Army war".
Limaj had already been acquitted of similar charges at the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague in 2005.
Thousands of ethnic Albanians were massacred and up to one million expelled during a brutal counter-insurgency war waged by Serbian forces under late strongman Slobodan Milosevic.
Serbs also died, but witness intimidation and clan loyalties in Kosovo, a close-knit society where KLA fighters are revered as heroes, have dogged prosecution efforts to investigate alleged war crimes.
Limaj is also standing trial on corruption charges stemming from his time as a government minister under Thaci in 2008 to 2010. He has denied any wrongdoing.
(Reporting by Fatos Bytyci; Editing by Matt Robinson and Ralph Boulton)