UN tribunal cuts Serb sentences for Kosovo crimes

THE HAGUE (AFP) - The Yugoslav war crimes court on Thursday reduced on appeal the sentences of three former top Serbian officials, convicted over atrocities committed during the 1998 to 1999 war in Kosovo.

The Appeals Court considers "a limited reduction in the sentences imposed by the Trial Chamber is warranted," International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) Judge Liu Daqun said.

The four men cannot be held responsible for some of the worst horrors committed by Serb troops during the conflict, for which they were convicted almost four years ago, he said.

Judge Liu however stressed that despite the reduced sentences, "it was the deliberate actions" of Serbian and Yugoslav forces "during the campaign of violence that caused the departure of at least 700,000 Kosovo Albanians from Kosovo."

Judges trimmed the 22-year sentence of former Yugoslav deputy prime minister Nikola Sainovic to 18 years, calling him the "crucial link" between Serb forces and late strongman Slobodan Milosevic.

Former Serbian police boss Sreten Lukic's sentence was cut from 22 to 20 years, while former Yugoslav army general Vladimir Lazarevic's sentence was reduced from 15 to 14 years.

The court upheld the 22-year sentence of a fourth accused, ex-Yugoslav army chief-of-staff Nebojsa Pavkovic.

The four men were convicted in February 2009 for what the judges said was a "broad campaign of violence directed against the Kosovo Albanian civilian population." That was the first-ever judgement of the tribunal on crimes committed by Serbs during the 1998 to 1999 Kosovo war.

Most of the crimes were committed between March and June 1999, during the course of a NATO bombing campaign that ended the conflict and forced Serb and Yugoslav forces to withdraw from the majority ethnic Albanian province.

All four men were close associates of Milosevic, who himself died in 2006 during his war crimes trial before the Hague-based court.

Serbian ex-president Milan Milutinovic was acquitted in 2009 while a sixth accused, Dragoljub Ojdanic, who did not appeal, was released last year after serving two-thirds of his sentence.

Prosecutors originally asked for sentences of between 20 years and life for the group for war crimes and crimes against humanity including the forcible deportation of Kosovo Albanians between January and June 1999, the murders of hundreds, sexual assaults on Albanian women and the destruction of cultural sites.

Milosevic and Serb authorities have always maintained they were taking legitimate action against the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), which they branded a terrorist group.

Kosovo in 2008 declared independence from Serbia, but Belgrade has rejected the move.