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A UN tribunal on Thursday acquitted late Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic's intelligence chief and his deputy of running Bosnian death squads during ex-Yugoslavia's brutal 1990s conflict, saying they could not have known the units would commit such crimes.
"The Chamber found that the prosecution had not proven beyond reasonable doubt that the accused planned or ordered the crimes charged in the indictment," Dutch judge Alphons Orie told the Yugoslav war crimes court, ordering their immediate release.
The release of intelligence chief Jovica Stanisic, 62, and co-accused Franko Simatovic, 63, is the latest in a string of acquittals by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Prosecutors had sought life in prison.
Stanisic and key aide Simatovic each faced five counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for their roles in the war that followed the break-up of Yugoslavia in 1991, which killed 100,000 people and left some 2.2 million others without a home.
Prosecutors accused the two of organising, financing and supplying Serb paramilitary groups, including an elite unit called the "Red Berets" and a feared paramilitary outfit run by Zeljko Raznatovic, called "Arkan's Tigers", between April 1991 and the end of 1995.
These units cut a swathe of destruction across Croatia and Bosnia as they attacked towns and murdered Croats, Muslims and other non-Serbs to force them from large areas in Croatia and Bosnia to create a Serb-run state, prosecutors said.
UN prosecutors alleged that Stanisic and Simatovic were part of a joint criminal enterprise to this purpose, which also included late Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic and Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic.
But judge Orie said: "The majority could not conclude that... he (Stanisic) shared the intent to further the common criminal purpose of forcibly and permanently removing the majority of non-Serbs... through murder, deportation, forcible transfer and persecution."
Dressed in a dark suit, light blue shirt and striped red tie, Stanisic appeared nervous and fiddled with his headphones as the lengthy judgement was read out.
The defendants were impassive as they stood to hear the final verdict, but gave their lawyers emotional hugs once it became clear that they were free men.