Pristina, Yugoslavia — A cheering crowd welcomed 143 ethnic Albanians back to Kosovo on Wednesday after their release from Serbian jails earlier in the day.
The ethnic Albanians, known as the "Djakovica group" because most had been rounded up in the Kosovo town of that name and prosecuted together on terrorism charges, were ordered freed by the Serbian Supreme Court on grounds of procedural errors in their trial. A retrial was ordered, though the men are unlikely to face a Serbian court again.
The main welcoming ceremony was held in the village of Bec, about 8 miles outside Djakovica, where thousands of exuberant family members and supporters greeted them. Albanian flags showing a black eagle on a red background fluttered in the breeze.
"Our sons! Our sons!" the crowd chanted, as some broke through a line of relief workers, police officers and NATO-led peacekeepers to embrace the released prisoners. Some of the men flashed victory signs and others looked tired.
The ex-prisoners were arrested and accused of terrorism during NATO's 78-day bombing campaign against Yugoslavia in 1999. The men, who were charged with having formed a unit of the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army and conducting attacks on government troops, were taken to the main part of Serbia when Yugoslav forces withdrew from Kosovo.
The province is still technically part of Serbia, Yugoslavia's main republic, but since the withdrawal has been under U.N. administration.
Human rights lawyers argued that the men had been arbitrarily detained a day after a Serbian clash with KLA forces had ended and the guerrillas had faded into the countryside. The men were sentenced last May to prison terms of up to 13 years.