BELGRADE - An ex-Serbian president cleared of war crimes is unlikely to get a hero's Friday on his return home, where the conviction of five other leaders is seen as a major setback in the battle against Kosovo's independence.
Milan Milutinovic, president from 1997 to 2002, is scheduled to fly back to Belgrade from The Hague on regular flight a day after a UN court acquitted him in its first verdicts on Serbian war crimes in Kosovo.
His former Socialist Party, since reformed and a key partner in the current pro-Western government, said it had no plans to formally greet him on his arrival at Belgrade's airport.
Judges at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) found he had no direct control over the Serbian forces that waged a brutal crackdown on Kosovo Albanians in 1998-1999.
But they sentenced five other top former officials to jail terms of between 15 and 22 years after finding them guilty of "a broad campaign of violence" against ethnic Albanians in the breakaway province.
"The verdicts by The Hague-based tribunal were inappropriately high considering the crimes they had been charged with," Serbian Prime Minister Mirko Cvetkovic said.
The sentences, Cvetkovic said, were unfair considering that Ramush Haradinaj, the former commander of separatist Kosovo Albanian rebels, was acquitted last year after a trial marked by reluctance of witnesses to testify.
The rulings, the first on alleged Kosovo war crimes committed by the forces loyal to late Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, would bolster Serbs' claims that the court was biased, a minister said.
"For our public, this judgement will provoke comparisons with the acquittal of Ramush Haradinaj, adding to impressions of double standards," said Rasim Ljajic, the Serbian minister in charge of ICTY cooperation.
Kosovo's ethnic Albanian-dominated parliament proclaimed independence from Serbia unilaterally a year ago this month. It is now recognised by 55 mainly Western countries.
But Belgrade, which is backed by Russia, vehemently opposes the independence of the southern province many Serbs consider the cradle of their history, culture and Orthodox Christianity.
It has based its diplomatic battle to halt or even reverse its recognition on a case before the International Court of Justice (ICJ), also based in The Hague.
Analysts say, however, that Thursday's guilty verdicts of the five, including former Yugoslav deputy prime minister Nikola Sainovic, dealt a major blow to that strategy as the judgements could be used before the ICJ.
"These are legal facts that could show that, after all, it is impossible to think of Kosovo remaining a part of Serbia in any way," said Natasa Kandic of the non-governmental Humanitarian Law Centre.
Kandic, a high profile advocate of Serbia's full cooperation with the ICTY, was speaking to independent broadcaster B92, but pro-government daily Politika found an analyst who viewed the judgements as more favourable for Serbia.
"The link between the events of 1999 and the declaration on independence is quite weak... The question is whether those events are enough reason to proclaim independence," Tibor Varadi, a lawyer who represented Belgrade in a Bosnian genocide case against Serbia, was quoted as saying.
Speaking at a joint media conference in Washington with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Kosovo President Fatmir Sejdiu said Thursday he had "full trust" in the ICTY despite the Milutinovic ruling.
Such sentiment was reflected Friday in the Kosovo press, which hailed the five convictions as support for independence.
"There is no better arguement for independence," the prominent Koha Ditore newspaper said in a commentary.