Croatian 'hero' generals home after war crimes acquittal

Two Croatian generals returned home to a hero's welcome on Friday after a UN court in The Hague cleared them of war crimes against Serbs during the bloody 1990s breakup of Yugoslavia.

Croatian ex-generals Ante Gotovina (R) and Mladen Markac (L), holding a Croatian flag, stands as they arrive at Zagreb's airport. The two returned to Zagreb to a hero's welcome after a UN court in The Hague cleared them of war crimes against Serbs during the bloody 1990s breakup of Yugoslavia.

The dramatic acquittal of Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was met with tears of joy in Croatia and outrage in bitter foe Serbia.

Within hours, they were being cheered by tens of thousands of people waving Croatian flags and singing nationalist songs in Zagreb's main square.

"We are happy to be with you tonight, this is our joint victory. The war belongs to history, let's turn to the future all together," Gotovina told the crowd after flying back from The Hague.

Earlier, cheers and applause erupted in a packed public gallery at the UN court in the Netherlands as Judge Theodor Meron acquitted the men.

But Serbia was furious and said it would scale back its cooperation with The Hague in protest.

President Tomislav Nikolic slammed the ruling as a "scandalous, political decision" and warned it would "open old wounds".

Several high ranking Serbian officials as well as Belgrade's Bosnian Serb wartime allies Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic are still on trial at the court.

Gotovina and Markac, considered heroes in Croatia, were last year jailed for 24 and 18 years respectively for the murder of Croatian Serbs during their country's struggle for independence and the bloody, ethnically driven breakup of Yugoslavia.

But the court rejected the premise on which the initial convictions had been based, namely that any artillery that landed on Serb-inhabited towns and was more than 200 metres (yards) from a military target amounted to an attack on civilians.

Judges therefore also overturned the finding of "a joint criminal enterprise whose purpose was the permanent and forcible removal of Serb civilians from the Krajina region."

Croatian President Ivo Josipovic said the acquittal was a vindication for Croatia.

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

Washington also expressed support for the acquittal and the war crimes tribunal.

The court was created "so that these accusations could be adjudicated in a manner that was open and that was transparent. So it's therefore incumbent on all of us to support the process and support the outcomes," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

In Serbia, many suggested the decision was politically motivated to allow Croatia to enter the EU with a clean slate.

Croatia will join the European Union in July having fulfilled the condition of handing over war crimes suspects to the court based in The Hague.

"Now Zagreb can join the European family with clean hands: no bloodstained past, forgotten are the expulsion of its Serb citizens," Serbian human rights lawyer Radovan Radisic said bitterly.

Gotovina, and Markac, both 57, were convicted last year on nine counts including murder and inhumane acts committed against Serbs.

A former French Foreign Legionnaire, Gotovina was sentenced for war crimes that his troops committed during "Operation Storm" which he led in 1995, specifically the shelling of four towns in Croatia's self-proclaimed Serb area of Krajina in August of that year.

The lightning offensive led to the recapture of the Krajina region, crushing one of the last pockets of Serb nationalist resistance in an area where the community had roots going back centuries.

The prosecution said 324 Serb civilians and soldiers were killed and "close to 90,000 Serbs were forcibly displaced with the clear intention that they never return."

The UN refugee organisation UNHRC put the number of people who fled the offensive at 250,000 while other UN estimates say some 600 people were killed.

"After this verdict... the question remains who is responsible for murders, persecution, destruction and the burning of houses, since so far no one was held responsible for that," said Croatian Serb leader Milorad Pupovac.

Gotovina, the highest-ranking Croatian army officer tried by the court, and Markac appealed their sentences in May, arguing that Croatian artillery never targeted civilians.

Prosecutors had alleged that Operation Storm was devised by the late Croatian president Franjo Tudjman and senior Croat military commanders to drive Serbs from the country.

Gotovina, seen by his supporters as the man who helped liberate Croatia in the chaotic aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, was arrested in Spain in 2005 after almost four years on the run.

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Writer: AFP
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