Serbs frees Kosovo war prisoners
NIS, Yugoslavia -- Serbia has begun handing over to NATO some of the 270 ethnic Albanians it is holding prisoner ahead of a U.S. deadline.
A convoy of about seven buses carried the first batch of 150 ethnic Albanian prisoners from prison in Nis to the Kosovo border.
Two U.N. jeeps and police vans and cars carrying about 50 police officers accompanied the buses as they made their way through lines of flag-waving ethnic Albanians who turned out to greet them.
The Serb government had been given until the end of the month to release political prisoners under U.S. legislation if it wanted to get its hands on $40 million of aid from Washington.
Kosovo's U.N. governor Michael Steiner said the transfer meant all Kosovo Albanian prisoners in Serbian jails who wanted to return to the province had now done so.
He added: "Those who have not committed crimes will be released, most of them tomorrow, the rest within weeks, not months."
Serbian Justice Minister Vladan Batic said that in the coming days 165 prisoners who fall into this category would be released.
Serbian officials have insisted the transfer of the prisoners to jails in Kosovo is a humanitarian gesture unconnected to the U.S. deadline.
Under a related deal with the United Nations, Serbian officials say 38 Serbs jailed in Kosovo will be allowed to serve their sentences in central Serbia if they have relatives there.
Many of those transferred Tuesday were convicted of terrorism during Milosevic's crackdown in Kosovo between 1998-99 and are regarded by rights groups as political prisoners.
One father who waited to see his son arrive across the border at Merdare told Reuters: "Now that my son has stepped onto Kosovo land, I can feel that it is really free."
Fatmir Qarri,'s son from the western town of Djakovica was arrested as a member of the Kosovo Liberation Army rebel group during the war.
Kosovo legally remains part of Serb-dominated Yugoslavia but has been a de facto international protectorate since NATO's 1999 air war to end Serb repression of the province's ethnic Albanian majority, during the rule of former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic.
Milosevic was handed over to the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal for former Yugoslavia last year, again under Belgrade's need for U.S. aid.
Many analysts believe Serbia will also hand over at least one indictee to The Hague court before the deadline.
Yugoslavia's Foreign Minister Goran Svilanovic told Reuters: "I will not be able to say what will happen on March 31, but I am sure there will be more cooperation, no matter whether it will happen the day before or a month after the 31st.
"It is a strong commitment of our government."
Mladic loses guard
Meanwhile, Gen. Ratko Mladic, the world's number two war crimes fugitive, has been stripped of his military guards, The Associated Press reported.
Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, who was instrumental in extraditing Milosevic, said on Monday that more than a dozen war crimes indictees believed to be living in Serbia "will have to be in The Hague" soon.
The top war crimes suspects living in Serbia also include the republic's president, Milan Milutinovic; Milosevic's military commander, Dragoljub Ojdanic: Milosevic's security adviser, Nikola Sainovic; and his police chief, Vlajko Stojiljkovic.
They have been indicted for war crimes in Kosovo province along with Milosevic.
Other top wanted suspects who went into hiding in Serbia include the so-called Vukovar troika: Mile Mrksic, Miroslav Radic and Veselin Sljivancanin.
The three retired Yugoslav army officers are wanted by the tribunal for crimes allegedly committed during Croatia's 1991 war for independence.
NATO troops attempted to arrest The Hague's number one most wanted man Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadzic last month without success.
Milosevic's successor, President Vojislav Kostunica, pardoned four of the most prominent ethnic Albanians, including pro-independence student leader Albin Kurti and activist Flora Brovina.
Milosevic is on trial for alleged genocide and crimes against humainity in Kosovo, Bosnia and Croatia.
Police release Serb deputy PM
March 16, 2002
Milosevic trial told of war horrors
March 7, 2002
Timeline: The Milosevic years
February 11, 2002
Belgrade frees Kosovo prisoners
April 25, 2001
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