THE HAGUE -- In a historic verdict that will resonate in the trial of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, a UN appeals court affirmed yesterday that Bosnian Serbs committed genocide at the UN-protected zone of Srebrenica in 1995, but cleared a Serb general of being a ''principal perpetrator" and reduced his sentence.
The war crimes tribunal, however, convicted General Radislav Krstic of the lesser crime of ''aiding and abetting genocide." It found that he assisted in the massacre of thousands of Bosnian Muslims but did not intend to wipe out the Muslim community.
Krstic's August 2001 genocide conviction was the first in Europe by an international court since the destruction of European Jewry in the Holocaust by the Nazis. The ruling changed the parameters of the crime's definition and ensured its place in war crimes jurisprudence.
Krstic's sentence was reduced from 46 years to 35. The general, who lost part of a leg in a land mine accident, has no other appeal options. Now 56 years old, he could be eligible for early release in 20 years.
About 7,500 Muslim men and boys were slaughtered in the eastern Bosnian enclave during nine days in July 1995. Their wives and families were deported to clear the way for the creation of a Greater Serbia under Milosevic, then the president.
The judges unanimously agreed yesterday that the intention to kill all the men put the very survival of Srebrenica's Muslims at stake, even though a relatively small number of people were murdered.
Unlike in the Holocaust, it also found that the genocide law could be applied to a limited geographic area because of a wider threat. Srebrenica was meant to serve as ''a potent example to all Bosnian Muslims of their vulnerability and defenselessness," the 130-page verdict said.
Two of the five tribunal judges were Muslims. One, Justice Mohamad Shahabuddeen of Guyana, dissented on the decision to reduce Krstic's responsibility for genocide, saying he wasn't convinced Krstic had no genocidal intent -- the key element required for a conviction.
''Genocide is one of the worst crimes known to humankind, and its gravity is reflected in the stringent requirement of specific intent," the verdict said.
''Convictions for genocide can be entered only where that intent has been unequivocally established," it said. Since the court had failed to prove intent, Krstic ''is not guilty of genocide as a principal perpetrator."
Yet it argued that his knowledge of a plan by the Bosnian Serb leadership to wipe out Srebrenica's Muslims, which was assisted by troops under his command, was enough for a conviction as an ''aider and abetter."
The outcome for Krstic could be an indication of what might happen in Milosevic's case. Like Krstic, the former Serb leader is accused of participation in ''a joint criminal enterprise" targeting the Bosnian Muslims for destruction. Genocide and complicity in genocide are among other 66 charges against him.
As in the Krstic case, Milosevic's prosecutors acknowledge they have no ''smoking gun" proving that the Serb leader ordered or instigated the destruction of the Bosnian Muslims. Legal specialists said the largely circumstantial case may be too thin for a genocide conviction.
''The evidence in the Krstic case can be transferred to the Milosevic trial. The prosecutor has at least one incident of genocide proven, but Milosevic's own responsibility remains a problem," said Dutch lawyer Heikelina Verrijn Stuart.
Milosevic's trial, entering its third year, is due to resume June 8 after a three-month recess, when he will open the case for the defense. Milosevic is defending himself.
The Yugoslav tribunal was established in 1993 to prosecute the perpetrators of the worst Balkan atrocities during a decade of wars that tore apart the former Yugoslavia.
The judges in the Krstic case said they intended to send a message to other leaders.
''Those responsible will bear the stigma [of genocide] and will serve as a warning to those who in the future may contemplate the commission of such heinous acts," it said.
Prosecutors had asked the appellant court to uphold the verdict and increase the prison sentence to life.