AMSTERDAM/PRISTINA Ramush Haradinaj, a former guerrilla commander in Kosovo who served briefly as prime minister, was acquitted of war crimes on Thursday for a second time, clearing the way for a potential return to government but angering Serbia.
The retrial verdict by a United Nations court in The Hague looked likely to test a new push by the European Union to reconcile Serbia and its former southern province almost five years after Kosovo declared independence with Western backing.
It comes on the heels of the acquittal on appeal two weeks ago of top Croatian general Ante Gotovina, fuelling nationalist accusations in Serbia that the court is biased against them.
Judges ruled there was no evidence to support charges against Haradinaj of crimes against humanity during a 1998-99 war between guerrillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and security forces under late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic.
Prosecutors had accused Haradinaj, 44, and two accomplices of persecuting ethnic Serbs in an effort to drive them out.
"On the contrary, the evidence establishes that, when he heard about the mistreatment of individuals, Haradinaj said no such thing should happen because this is damaging of our cause," the presiding judge, Bakone Justice Moloto, said.
There were gasps and cheers in the courtroom, and fireworks in Kosovo's capital, Pristina. Serbia's nationalist president, Tomislav Nikolic, said it was further evidence the U.N. tribunal for the ex-Yugoslavia was "formed to try the Serbian people".
The acquittal marks a fresh blow to U.N. prosecutors after the release of Croatia's Gotovina, who was cleared on appeal of crimes against Serbs during a 1995 military offensive.
The prosecutors have long complained of widespread witness intimidation in Kosovo, a country of 1.7 million people where the KLA is still revered and clan loyalties run deep.
Kosovo said the verdict was vindication of the rebel war, "the strongest evidence that the Kosovo Liberation Army fought a just war for freedom and never committed the crimes of which we were unfairly accused," Prime Minister Hashim Thaci, himself a former KLA commander, said in a statement.
Serbia's brutal counter-insurgency campaign, in which almost a million ethnic Albanians were expelled, was Milosevic's last throw of the dice after he fomented wars in Bosnia and Croatia during the collapse of federal Yugoslavia.
NATO finally intervened in 1999 with 78 days of air strikes to drive Serb forces from Kosovo, which became a ward of the United Nations. Milosevic was ousted in 2000 and died in 2006 in his cell in The Hague while on trial for war crimes.
RETURN TO GOVERNMENT?
Kosovo is still patrolled by about 6,000 NATO peacekeepers, policed by the European Union, and dogged by a de facto ethnic partition between the 90-percent Albanian majority and Serbs in the north who are supported by Belgrade.
Haradinaj was prime minister for several months in 2005 but resigned when he was first charged. He was acquitted in 2008 but appeal judges ordered a partial retrial, saying the prosecution should have been given more time to make its case.
Speculation is rife in Kosovo that Thaci plans to reshuffle his coalition government to bring in Haradinaj's Alliance for the Future of Kosovo, possibly ceding the post of prime minister to Haradinaj and seeking the presidency for himself.
Haradinaj was expected in Pristina later in the day. His lawyer said the former nightclub bouncer, "with the consent of the people, will soon be resuming his rightful position as the political leader of the country".
That would potentially see him join EU-mediated talks between Pristina and Belgrade aimed at building relations between the two and cementing peace in the Balkans. Progress is a key condition of Serbia's integration with the EU.
Nikolic, the Serbian president, took a hard line, saying the verdict would "annul" what had so far been achieved. But Ivica Dacic, who holds the more powerful post of prime minister in the ruling coalition, said the talks would go on regardless.
"We can decide not to go to the next round of talks, but then we'll wait until 2014 to start (accession) negotiations with the EU," Dacic told reporters when asked, before the trial verdict, how an acquittal might affect the dialogue. "Let's look at what's in our best interest," he said.
(Additional reporting by Radosa Milutinovic in The Hague and Aleksandar Vasovic in Belgrade; Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Andrew Heavens)