Serbs jailed for the murder of more than 100 Kosovars

BELGRADE (AFP) - Serbia's war crimes court on Tuesday sentenced nine Serbian members of a paramilitary force to up to 20 years in prison for killing at least 109 ethnic Albanians during the 1998-99 Kosovo conflict.

The nine "committed murders, rapes and robberies in an extremely brutal way, with the main goal to spread fear among Albanian civilians in order to force them to leave their homes and flee to Albania", Judge Snezana Nikolic Garotic said in her verdict.

Prosecutors had charged the defendants, members of the Serbian Sakali (Jackals) paramilitary unit, with killing 120 ethnic Albanian civilians in the villages of Cuska, Zahac, Pavlin and Ljubenic near the western Kosovo town of Pec, in April and May 1999.

However, only 109 victims have been identified so far.

"They are guilty of breaching the Geneva convention during the armed conflict in Kosovo as members of the Serb armed forces," Judge Garotic said.

Defendant Toplica Miladinovic was sentenced to 20 years in jail, along with two others.

Seven defendants were sentenced to between two and 15 years in jail, while two were cleared of all charges.

At least two more men from the unit initially charged were set free having agreed to testify against the others.

All defendants had pleaded not guilty at the beginning of the trial.

Miladinovic said he had never heard of the crimes before reading the indictment.

"I did not commit this crime," Miladinovic told the special war crimes court in Belgrade at the start of the trial.

Several other people, who are still on the run, are suspected of taking part in the killings.

They have been put on an Interpol wanted list, according to the prosecutor's office.

The atrocities were committed during NATO's 11-week bombing campaign aimed at ending the late strongman Slobodan Milosevic's crackdown on separatist Kosovo Albanians.

Following Milosevic's ouster in October 2000, Serbia began investigating crimes committed during the conflict which claimed some 13,000 lives, mostly ethnic Albanians.

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