THE HAGUE, Netherlands — A U.N. war crimes tribunal on Thursday acquitted Kosovo's former prime minister for the second time of murdering and torturing Serbs and their supporters in Kosovo's war for independence, setting the stage for his return to political life in the deeply divided nation.
The verdict was issued in the U.N. court's first ever retrial, which was ordered after appeals judges branded the 2008 acquittals of former Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj and KLA fighters Idriz Balaj and Lahi Brahimaj a "miscarriage of justice" because of widespread intimidation of prosecution witnesses.
Brahimaj was convicted of torture at the first trial and that was not retried, but he has served his sentence and will be released with the others.
The acquittals herald a political renaissance for Haradinaj, seen by the West before his 2005 indictment as a unifying force in Kosovo, but could complicate talks between Pristina and Belgrade on Kosovo's future.
"With the consent of the people, he will soon be resuming his rightful position as the political leader of the country," his lawyer Ben Emmerson told reporters at the court.
Emmerson said Haradinaj told him he wants to lead a government representing all ethnic groups in Kosovo. "It is time, he says, for reconciliation."
Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci said the ruling vindicated the ethnic-Albanian guerrilla force that fought Serbia in 1998-99.
"Our struggle for independence was just and sacred," Thaci said in a statement.
Applause rang around the courtroom's public gallery when Presiding Judge Bakone Moloto delivered the vedicts.
In Kosovo's capital, Pristina, supporters set off fireworks and honked car horns. Others danced and clapped as they watched the verdicts on a giant screen.
The three men were to be released and returned to Kosovo later Thursday.
"Finally, after eight long years and two lengthy trials, this tribunal has done justice to Ramush Haradinaj, to his co-accused and to the people of Kosovo," Emmerson said.
Moloto said Serbs and their suspected supporters were beaten at a KLA compound in Kosovo and at least one of them died of his injuries. However, he said that there was no evidence Haradinaj was involved in the attacks.
In fact, Moloto said, Haradinaj reprimanded one KLA fighter for abusing a Kosovo Albanian man, telling the fighter: "No such thing should happen anymore because this is damaging our cause."
Haradinaj quit as Kosovo's prime minister in 2005 after just 100 days in office when his indictment was announced by the tribunal, but he remains popular at home.
In Kosovo, large posters welcoming him back were hung well before the decision was announced in The Hague.
For Haradinaj's Alliance for the Future of Kosovo, which has been in decline since his trial, the return could herald a new era.
"We do hope that he will take a lot of opportunities and a lot of management in the state because we see that Kosovo has huge challenges ahead and therefore he has a role to play," said Besnik Tahiri, an official in Haradinaj's AAK party. "Hopefully he will continue where he was when he left (as PM) in 2005."
Serbian officials and media had been anticipating for days that Haradinaj would be acquitted less than two weeks after two Croatian generals were cleared of charges of killing and deporting Serbs in a 1995 military blitz, a judgment that sparked rage in Belgrade, where many see the tribunal as anti-Serb.
Serbia's President Tomislav Nikolic said that the verdicts "fuel separatism, deal a blow to efforts at establishing peace in the region, annul efforts so far in normalizing ties between Belgrade and Pristina and fuel Euro-skepticism among the Serbian people."
Serbia's war crimes prosecutor Vladimir Vukcevic described Thursday's acquittals as "unjust" and the result of "unprofessional" protection of witnesses.
"But, we should keep our heads cool and continue cooperation in the region," Vukcevic told the AP. "That's the only way the war crimes can be processed and justice done for the victims."
Serbia's Prime Minister Ivica Dacic said that, despite the verdicts, Serbia will not pull out of the talks with Pristina.
"Continuation of dialogue and the process of integration in the European Union are in Serbia's interest," he said.
Associated Press writers Nebi Qena in Pristina, Kosovo, and Jovana Gec and Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Serbia, contributed to this report.