UN war crimes court frees Croatian 'hero' generals

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A UN court on Friday acquitted Croatian generals Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac of war crimes during the bloody 1990s break-up of Yugoslavia, to tears of joy from their supporters and outrage in Serbia.

Cheers and applause erupted in the packed public gallery at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) as Judge Theodor Meron read the acquittal.

Some supporters burst into tears and hugged Markac's wife, Mirjana, while others outside uncorked champagne bottles.

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.

"The UN war crimes court has lost all credibility," minister Rasim Ljajic, responsible for the country's cooperation with the tribunal, told the Beta news agency.

"Today's decision is proof of selective justice which is worse than any injustice," he said, echoing a widely held belief in Serbia.

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.

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 (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."

Gotovina, dressed in a dark jacket, light blue shirt and dark blue tie, listened intently as Judge Meron read the verdict, sometimes tapping his fingers on the table. As the judges left the courtroom, he smiled and shook Markac's hand.

Were absolutely elated with the verdict, Gotovinas lawyer Gregory Kehoe told AFP.

The generals were driven under Dutch police escort to nearby Rotterdam airport where they boarded a Croatian government plane to fly back to a hero's welcome in Zagreb where they were expected at around 1500 GMT.

"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," Kehoe said.

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.

Candle-lit vigils were held the night before the ruling around Croatia, which will join the European Union in July having fulfilled the condition of handing over war crimes suspects to the court based in The Hague.

In Zagreb, people cheered and broke down in tears in the city's central square, where thousands watched the generals acquitted in a live broadcast.

-- 1995 offensive shelled four Serb towns --


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 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."

Serb victims' associations put the number at 1,200 civilians killed and 220,000 refugees.

Asked about crimes committed by Croat troops before and after the shelling of Serb towns, mentioned by Judge Meron, lawyer 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.

But judges found in the end that there had been no such enterprise, meaning the last Croatian nationals held by the UN court were released.

Several Bosnian Croats are however still serving time for convictions by the court.

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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