Serbs mourn as Croats hail 20 years since Operation ‘Storm’

Croatia rejects Serb claim that crushing 1995 military victory was ‘ethnic cleansing’

Serbian nationalist leader Vojislav Seselj (behind the flag) and his party members burn the Croatian national flag in front of the Croatian embassy during a protest marking the 20th anniversary of Croatia’s four-day Operation Storm. Photograph: Marko Djurica/Reuters

Serbian nationalist leader Vojislav Seselj (behind the flag) and his party members burn the Croatian national flag in front of the Croatian embassy during a protest marking the 20th anniversary of Croatia’s four-day Operation Storm. Photograph: Marko Djurica/Reuters

 

Croatia and Serbia have held starkly contrasting ceremonies to mark 20 years since Croat troops crushed Serb separatists in an operation that caused some 200,000 Serbs to flee their homes.

Operation “Storm” completed a counter-attack by Croatian forces against Serb rebels backed by Belgrade and hastened the end of Croatia’s 1990-95 war of independence from Serb-dominated Yugoslavia and the 1992-5 Bosnian conflict, by forcing nationalist Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic to the negotiating table.

Serb separatists

“When Serbian politicians declare that genocide was committed against Serbs during ‘Storm’ and compare it with the genocide in Srebrenica, I tell them: gentlemen, give up on myths, lies and deception,” Croatian president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic said yesterday, with reference to the July 1995 massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica by ethnic Serb forces.

“Turn to the European future – Croatia is not an enemy of Serbia, do not sow new seeds of evil,” she told thousands of Croats in Knin, the de facto capital of the Krajina Serb separatists during the war. The army officers who led “Storm” – the biggest military operation in Europe since the second World War – were acquitted of war crimes charges by the United Nations tribunal at The Hague.

“We grieve for every lost life, both Croat and Serb, and I emphasise that the cause of this was Milosevic’s expansionist policy . . . ,” Ms Grabar-Kitarovic said.

Serb rebels

Rights groups say some 600 Serb civilians were murdered in the aftermath of “Storm” and thousands of houses were looted and burned, but few Croat soldiers have been found guilty of such crimes.

In Serbia, air-raid sirens wailed at noon yesterday on a day of national mourning.

“This is the saddest day in Serbian history . . . Operation Storm was ethnic cleansing and senseless slaughter of Serbs,” said Serbian prime minister Aleksandar Vucic, who in the late-1990s was a Milosevic ally.

“With Croatia we live in peace, and soon we will be good friends in a common home, the European Union, but we want to send the clear message that the crime must be forgiven, but it cannot be forgotten.”