BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Serbia's war crimes court on Tuesday convicted nine former paramilitaries 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. Kosovo declared independence in 2008.
The civilians were attacked with an aim to force them to leave Kosovo and never return, judge Snezana Nikolic Garotic said. Civilian property was destroyed so they would have nothing to return to, she added.
The indictment said that 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 the 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-paramilitaries tried for the crime, two had been 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.
War crimes trials in Serbia are part of efforts by authorities to deal with the wartime past as the state seeks EU membership.