Published Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014 | 11:19 a.m.
Updated Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2014 | 11:21 a.m.
BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Serbia's war crimes court on Tuesday convicted nine former paramilitary members of the brutal killings of more than 100 ethnic Albanian civilians during the Kosovo war and sentenced them to between two and 20 years in prison.
The crime by the "Jackals" paramilitary group includes the massacre of 41 people in the Kosovo village of Cuska, where Serbs rounded up villagers, robbed them, separated women and children from men, locked the men in a house and set it on fire.
The crime in Cuska and three other villages in western Kosovo in May 1999 were among the most brutal of the 1998-99 conflict that killed 10,000 people after independence-seeking Kosovo Albanians rebelled against Serbian rule. The brutality of Serbia's crackdown prompted NATO to intervene with airstrikes to stop the war.
Rexhep Kelmendi, one of only three survivors of the massacre in Cuska, welcomed the verdicts Tuesday but said they fell short of easing the anguish families have lived with for over a decade.
"I think the pain will never go away," Kelmendi said.
Kosovo's top defense official, Agim Ceku, whose family members were killed, said the verdicts fell short of overcoming differences between Serbia and Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008. He blamed Serbia's top leadership at the time with launching a violent campaign against ethnic Albanians.
"This is not a massacre by a group of paramilitaries that did this on this on their own," he said. "This is a massacre that was planned and executed by the state of Serbia."
Judge Snezana Nikolic Garotic said in her reasoning the civilians were attacked with the aim of forcing them to leave Kosovo and never come back. Civilian property was destroyed so they would have nothing to return to, she added.
The indictment said the soldiers "have shown exceptional brutality and ruthlessness" by shooting people in their backs, and then setting them on fire "to prevent determining their identity." It said Serbs intimidated civilians by snatching small children from their parents, shooting in front of their feet, putting knives at their throats and beating them.
Of 11 ex-paramilitary members tried for the crimes, two were acquitted. The unit commander, Toplica Miladinovic, was among the three defendants sentenced to 20 years in prison. The war crimes prosecutor's office said it would appeal the acquittals and demand harsher punishment for some defendants.