Former Nazi commander Ladislav Niznansky has been acquitted of murder by a German court after it found that his role in the massacre of 164 civilians at the end of World War II could not be proven.
In what is seen as one of the last Nazi trials, the court ordered that Niznansky be paid compensation for spending nine months in prison during the case after the prosecution failed to link him to the killings.
Lawyers for the 88-year-old former leader of a German-Czech military unit dubbed "Edelweiss" argued that he had merely been "at the wrong place at the wrong time".
The prosecution had demanded a life sentence, saying Niznansky ordered the killing of 146 civilians in the villages of Klak and Ostry Grun in what is today part of Slovakia in January 1945 and of 18 Jews at Ksina in February that year.
The victims were "massacred for no apparent reason and without any consideration for age or gender," chief prosecutor Konstantin Kuchenbauer told the court in his closing arguments.
"They cried, they screamed and begged for mercy."
Niznansky, whose ill health prompted several delays during the 15-month trial, maintained his innocence throughout.
He said that while he was a member of the Edelweiss unit, he joined to avoid being sent to a concentration camp after being caught taking part in an uprising against the occupying Nazi forces.
He told the court that he "deeply regretted the deaths among the civilian population."
The prosecution has argued that Niznansky had willingly joined Edelweiss, describing him as a life-long opportunist who curried favor with whoever was in power.
Niznansky fled to Germany in 1948 after the communist coup in then Czechoslovakia, where he was sentenced to death in absentia in 1962 for treason and murder.
The case against him was revived in 2001, prompted by a request from Slovak justice authorities.
In Slovakia on Monday the mayor of Ostry Grun, one of the villages whose inhabitants were massacred, expressed disappointment at the acquittal.
"We are very disappointed by the decision of the German justice system," Jan Repisky told AFP.
Slovakian historian Jan Stanislav, who runs a museum in central Slovakia specialising in World War II, said the court tried to come to a fair decision but should have examined American and Russian archives.
"When I was in Munich in November 2004 I recommended that the court also examine those documents. I am not disappointed but as a historian I would like to know the truth," he said.
The German prosecution based much of its case on testimony of former members of Edelweiss during the Czech trial.
Niznansky settled in Munich after the end of the war and worked as a journalist for the US radio station, Radio Free Europe.
The prosecution also charged that he worked as a "double agent" for the Czech secret services during the communist era and for the US intelligence services.
In November, an 86-year-old former Nazi officer was sentenced to life imprisonment in Rome over the 1944 massacre of 60 people in an Italian monastery where German troops found Jews hiding.
Hermann Langer, a former SS lieutenant, was found guilty of leading a group of soldiers who carried out the massacre on September 2, 1944, after they found Jews hiding in a Carthusian convent at Farneta near the Tuscan town of Lucca.