Croatian generals welcomed as heroes


Two Croatian generals were welcomed home as heroes last night after having their war crimes convictions quashed by the UN court at The Hague, in a ruling that Serbia denounced as political and damaging to already fractious relations in former Yugoslavia.

The tribunal last year sentenced Ante Gotovina to 24 years in jail and Mladen Markac to 18 years over the killing and persecution of Serb civilians when Croatian forces reclaimed land from ethnic-Serb rebels in the final months of Zagreb’s 1991-5 fight for independence from Belgrade.

The men are idolised by many Croats for playing leading roles in Operation Storm, which in August 1995 turned the tide of the war and put huge pressure on nationalist Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic to come to the negotiating table.

They are loathed in Serbia, however, where officials say Operation Storm claimed the lives of hundreds of innocent Serbs and forced more than 200,000 from their ancestral homeland in the Krajina region of Croatia. Zagreb disputes those figures.

The original verdict against the generals said they were part of a “joint criminal enterprise” with late Croatian president Franjo Tudjman and others to drive ethnic Serbs out of out of Krajina.

But the appeal judges ruled that it had not been proven that Croat forces deliberately targeted civilians, making the original verdict unsustainable.

In the court’s public gallery and across Croatia, where prayer meetings and candlelit vigils for the men were held on Thursday night, the ruling was greeted with jubilation. In squares in Zagreb and other towns and cities, many people watched the hearing live on big screens.

Criminal enterprise

“The verdict confirms everything we believe in Croatia: that generals Gotovina and Markac are innocent and there was no joint criminal enterprise of the Croatian leadership and armed forces aimed at persecuting civilians, our citizens of Serb nationality,” said Croatian president Ivo Josipovic.

Prime minister Zoran Milanovic – who hopes to lead Croatia into the EU next July –said he would send a plane “to get the boys back home”.

He also acknowledged that “mistakes were made during the course of the conflict. Mistakes for which the Croatian state should be held responsible, not Gotovina and Markac.” The generals addressed tens of thousands of flag-waving supporters in Zagreb’s main square last night.

“We are happy to be with you tonight, this is our joint victory,” Gen Gotovina told the crowd. “The war belongs to history, let’s all turn to the future together.”

Serbian reacted with fury to a ruling that president Tomislav Nikolic called the ruling “scandalous”.“ It is now quite clear the tribunal has made a political decisionand not a legal ruling. . . .Today’s ruling will not contribute to the stabilisation of the situation in the region and will open old wounds,.” he said.