ZAGREB: Two Croatian generals arrived home in Zagreb 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.
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.
Tens of thousands of people waving Croatian flags and singing nationalist songs gathered to greet the pair in Zagreb’s main Ban Jelacic square where they were expected to address the crowd later.
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, which still has military and political leaders including Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic on trial at the court, was furious at the acquittal.
Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic slammed the ruling as a “scandalous, political decision.”
“Today’s decision of the The Hague tribunal will not contribute to stabilising the situation in the region, it will open old wounds,” he said.
“The UN war crimes court has lost all credibility,” minister Rasim Ljajic, responsible for the country’s co-operation with the tribunal, told the Beta news agency.
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 break-up 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 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.” “We’re absolutely elated with the verdict,” Gotovina’s lawyer Gregory Kehoe told the reporter.
Croatian President Ivo Josipovic said the acquittal was a vindication for Croatia.