BLANTYRE, Malawi (AP) _ A jury on Saturday acquitted Malawi's former dictator of ordering four murders in 1983, dealing a blow to the current government, which had promised to punish him for atrocities committed during his rule.

Thousands of political opponents were murdered, imprisoned and exiled during Kamuzu Banda's 30 years in office.

Malawi's year-old, democratically elected government had pledged to hold him accountable, and said it would appeal the verdict to the Supreme Court.

``I haven't changed my mind that they are guilty,'' said Justice Minister Collins Chizumila. ``I don't know what went wrong. It is either incompetence or bribery. What the judge has done is set a precedent in Malawi that you can kill a person and get away with it.''

The government's anger targeted Judge Mackson Mkandawire, who told the jury Friday that although Banda was a dictator, prosecutors had failed to prove he conspired to commit multiple murders.

The jury, which heard five months of testimony, also cleared John Tembo, Banda's widely despised police minister; Cecilia Kadzamira, Tembo's niece and Banda's long-time female companion; and three senior police officers.

The defendants were accused of ordering the slayings of three Cabinet ministers and a member of Parliament who opposed Banda's policies. The four were beaten to death with hammers and clubs by a police hit squad and left in a wrecked car to make it look like an accident.

``You have heard the verdict. I cannot disagree with the jury. That means I acquit each one of you on all counts,'' the judge told the defendants when the jury came back after two hours of deliberations. Tembo smiled.

``We cannot hide our happiness,'' Tembo told cheering supporters outside the courthouse. ``We have languished in this court, but we don't have any grudge against anyone.''

Banda, who once boasted his enemies were ``food for crocodiles,'' was not in court for the verdict. In his 90s and immobilized by illness, he was ruled too senile and frail to appear at the proceedings.

Several hundred Banda supporters left the court singing, honking car horns and waving flags of Banda's Malawi Congress Party. There were no immediate reports of violence or demonstrations against the verdicts.

On the streets of the capital, reaction was mixed.

``I can't believe this,'' said Mustafa Abasi, a clerical worker. ``These are people who boasted about their authority in their days of glory, and today they are free.''

Store owner Martin Kapito said he trusted the judicial system under democratic rule: ``Justice has taken its course. By virtue of being arrested doesn't mean you should be convicted.''

Since African territories began winning independence from their colonial rulers in the 1950s, ruthless dictators have been the norm. While some of the rulers have been tried for alleged crimes, few have served jail time. Most have ended up in exile.

Educated by Scottish missionaries, Banda received medical training in Chicago and Nashville. He returned home in 1958 to campaign against colonial rule and was briefly jailed.

Two years after Malawi gained independence from Britain in 1964, Banda declared a one-party state, and in 1971, he named himself president for life. During his rule, many of Malawi's 8 million people sank into poverty, and Banda tightly controlled political and economic life.

Anti-government riots and an aid freeze by Western donors forced democratic elections last year, ending Banda's rule.