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A UN court on Friday acquitted Croatian ex-generals Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac of war crimes during the bloody 1990s breakup of Yugoslavia and ordered them freed, to shouts and tears of joy from their supporters across Europe.
The appeals court "enters a verdict of acquittal" for Gotovina and Markac, judge Theodor Meron said at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague.
The court's packed public gallery erupted in cheers and clapping as the acquittal was read, with many people bursting out in tears and hugging Markac's wife, Mirjana, who was at the hearing, as supporters outside uncorked champagne bottles.
Gotovina and Markac, considered heros 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 found that the initial convictions had been based on the false premise that any artillery that landed on Serb-inhabited towns and was more than 200 metres (yards) from a military target was an attack on civilians.
Judges also overturned the finding of "a joint criminal enterprise whose purpose was the permanent and forcible removal of Serb civilians from the Krajina region."
Gotovina, dressed in a light blue suit and dark blue tie, listened intently as judge Meron read the verdict, sometimes tapping his fingers on the table. As it became obvious he would be freed, he smiled and shook Markac's hand.
Were absolutely elated with the verdict, Gotovinas lawyer Gregory Kehoe told AFP. Ive been working on this case for six years. This is a great day.
"Mr Gotovina has gone back to the detention unit to pack his things -- he has been there since December 2005 so you can imagine he has accumulated quite a few things," Kehoe said.
The generals will be driven to nearby Rotterdam airport in "Croatian government" vehicles, to be flown back in a Croatian plane to a hero's welcome in Zagreb.
"We expect him to be driven to Rotterdam airport in vehicles provided by the Croatian government later this afternoon," Kehoe told AFP.
"Right now, Mr Gotovina just wants to go home and spend some time with his wife, daughter and young son. Christmas is coming up and he might want to take a bit of holiday."
Outside the courthouse supporters uncorked champagne while singing Croatian nationalist songs.
"Its a great day for us," said Zvonko Komsic, 53, as he hugged Markac's wife while taking a swig of champagne.
Candle-lit vigils were held the night before the ruling around Croatia, which will in July join the European Union having fulfilled the condition of handing over war crimes suspects to the court based in The Hague.
People cheered and broke down in tears in Zagreb's central square, where thousands watched the generals acquitted in a live broadcast.
Hope had been riding high that the generals would be freed, with Gotovina supporter Edi Zelic saying he had champagne on ice in anticipation as he awaited the verdict outside the Hague courtroom.
Croatian Roman Catholic bishop Vlado Kosic had urged the faithful to "raise their voice against injustice regarding the generals and Croatia" and to pray "for a fair verdict".
Gotovina, and Markac, both 57, were convicted last year on nine counts including murder and inhumane acts committed against Serbs.
A third accused, Ivan Cermak, who was deputy Croatian defence minister at the time, was acquitted.
A former French Foreign Legionnaire, Gotovina was sentenced for war crimes his troops committed during "Operation Storm" 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."
Serb victims' associations put the numbers at 1,200 civilians killed and 220,000 refugees.
"The verdict clearly showed that the trial chamber based their findings on a purely arbitrary conclusion," lawyer Kehoe said.
Asked about crimes committed by Croat troops before and after the shelling of Serb towns, mentioned by Judge Meron, Kehoe said "those crimes have to be investigated."
Gotovina, the highest-ranking Croatian army officer tried by the court, and Markac appealed their sentences in May, with their lawyer disputing that Croatian artillery ever targeted civilians, something appeals judges agreed with.
Prosecutors had argued that Operation Storm was a "joint criminal enterprise", 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 a luxury hotel in the Spanish Canary Islands in December 2005 after almost four years on the run.
© 2012 AFP
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