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Serbia Frees Albanians

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Chanting "Our sons! Our sons!" thousands of ethnic Albanians rushed to embrace 143 men released Wednesday from Serb prisons, welcoming them home nearly two years after they were arrested during the war in Kosovo.

People swarmed to a handful of buses carrying the men to this tiny western Kosovo village, breaking through a cordon of NATO-led peacekeepers, police and humanitarian workers.

Red Albanian flags emblazoned with a black eagle fluttered in the breeze and the families gathered around the buses, eager to greet those returning.

As the bus doors opened, each man was swept off his feet and passed to his relatives in the jubilant crowd.

Serbia's decision to free those it previously called terrorists is the latest sign that the new leadership is attempting to right some of the wrongs committed under Slobodan Milosevic.

Many of the men had been snatched from refugee convoys and hastily tried on terrorism charges related to the 1999 Kosovo Albanian campaign for independence from Yugoslavia's main republic, Serbia.

The rebellion ended when NATO launched 78 days of air strikes against Yugoslavia and pushed Milosevic's forces out of Kosovo.

Milosevic was ousted in October, and the courts of the new pro-democracy government ruled Monday that the sentences of the 143 men should be reviewed. New trials are considered highly unlikely.

The Albanians were handed over to the International Red Cross, which is responsible for arranging their transportation to Kosovo.

Demands for the release of these prisoners have long been a rallying point for the province's Albanians, who have argued that there will never be peace in Kosovo until all them are free. Dozens remain in jail.


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Francoise Zambellini of the International Red Cross said 281 Kosovo Albanians are known to remain in Serbian prisons. There are 3,525 Kosovo residents missing and unaccounted for, most of them ethnic Albanian but also 516 Serbs, 167 Romas, or Gypsies, and 126 others.

More than 1,000 ethnic Albanians were imprisoned in central Serbia when Serb troops pulled out of Kosovo in June 1999.

Western governments had called on Belgrade to release the prisoners, condemning their convictions last year as groundless.

Hundreds of ethnic Albanians have been released since Milosevic was ousted. For months, the United States and others have been pressuring Yugoslav authorities to release the rest.

Many of the men complained of appalling prison conditions. "We did not have appropriate health care, we had to improve our daily diet from food parcels," said Tritero Balata, a lawyer from Djakovica. "Serb prisoners helped us a bit."

"We were hostages of the former regime," said Zubi Kastriot of Djakovica after being released from the prison in Nis, 100 miles south f Belgrade. "We want to be declared innocent."

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