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Appeals panel clears Yugoslav army chief of Serb atrocities

| Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013, 7:24 p.m.

THE HAGUE, Netherlands — In a stunning reversal, U.N. appeals judges on Thursday acquitted the former chief of the Yugoslav National Army of aiding and abetting atrocities by rebel Serbs, including the Srebrenica massacre, by providing them with military aid during the Balkan wars.

Gen. Momcilo Perisic, a former close ally of ex-Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, had been sentenced to 27 years in 2011 for his conviction of crimes including murder, inhumane acts and persecution. The judges ordered him freed immediately.

The judgment is a rare victory for Serbs at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal, where most of the convicted suspects have been rebel Serbs in Bosnia and Croatia. It supported Belgrade's often-stated assertion that it did not deliberately assist in Bosnian Serb atrocities and underscores how hard it is for international courts to prosecute senior officials seen as pulling the strings but not acting directly.

The court's most ambitious attempt to link Belgrade to Balkan war atrocities ended inconclusively when Milosevic died of a heart attack in his cell in The Hague in 2006 before a verdict could be reached in his trial for fomenting violence throughout the region as the former Yugoslavia crumbled.

While linking senior officials in one country to crimes by rebels in another is difficult, it can be done.

Another high-profile case played out in a different Hague courtroom. Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president, was convicted of aiding and abetting rebels in neighboring Sierra Leone during that African nation's brutal civil war. Taylor has appealed his conviction and 50-year sentence.

Perisic, wearing a dark suit and tie, looked down and raised his eyebrows as Presiding Judge Theodor Meron said his convictions were being overturned in a 4-1 ruling by the five-judge appeals panel.

His acquittal on appeal is final and cannot be further appealed.

It has long been known that Belgrade provided arms and other equipment to Bosnian Serb forces, but Meron said the aid was for the Bosnian Serb “war effort” and prosecutors failed to prove it was given with the “specific intent” for forces led by Bosnian Serb military chief Gen. Ratko Mladic to commit crimes.

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