THOUSANDS OF CROATIANS gathered for prayers and held candlelight vigils throughout the country on Thursday for two former wartime generals ahead of their appeal verdict by the UN Yugoslav war crimes court.
In Zagreb, hundreds of war veterans, many in uniforms, gathered at the Mirogoj cemetery to pray for former generals Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac, considered by many as heroes of Croatia’s war of independence in the 1990s breakup of Yugoslavia.
In April 2011, Gotovina and Markac were sentenced to 24 and 18 years respectively for war crimes committed against ethnic Serbs during the August 1995 military offensive in which Croatia recovered a key area held by rebel Serbs.
The ruling shocked Croatia and following the two ex-generals’ appeal, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) based in The Hague will on Friday announce its final verdict in the case.
“We want to show our support for our generals and we are waiting with them for the verdict,” Josip Klemm of a veteran group that organised the vigil told AFP.
Croatian people see them as “heroes”
“Croatian people see these generals as heroes… we are living witnesses. They defended the country, that’s why we want to be with them,” said Klemm.
At the cemetery, a priest led veterans in prayers in front of a big black marble wall-shaped monument for the victims of the 1991-1995 war.
Many also lit candles and laid flowers for the victims, whose names were engraved on the monument.
The veterans, who were carrying the national and their units’ flags, later marched from the cemetery to the city cathedral where they were joined by other Croatians, many holding candles and greeting them with loud applause.
Prayers were also held in many churches throughout the country, with the country’s Catholic Church calling on believers to unite in prayers for the pair.
“Croatian bishops call the faithful for unity and prayers that the final verdict will be fair,” bishop Mate Uzinic said.
Croatia’s veterans’ groups said they would also organise a rally on Friday at Zagreb’s central square where the court hearing will be broadcast live on a giant screen.
They said they expected some 100,000 people to gather to await the final verdict. Organisers said similar rallies were to be held in other towns in Croatia.
After Gotovina and Markac were first sentenced last year, thousands of people protested, condemning the verdict and blaming the pro-EU leadership for failing to protect the generals.
The two generals, notably 57-year old Gotovina, are still considered by many as heroes of Croatia’s 1991-1995 war that erupted after Zagreb proclaimed independence and rebel Serbs, backed by Serbia, took up arms opposing the move.
“They represent our war for homeland,” said veteran Miljenko Kolobaric, dressed in his uniform.
The national football team’s coach Igor Stimac has also put the photo of the two generals on his Facebook page, calling for “unconditional support for our generals”.
“I call you to unite in prayers and then go out to show that we have not forgotten them. They are there because they defended us and we must never forget that,” wrote Stimac.
Gotovina, indicted in 2001, spent four years in hiding before being captured in Spain’s Canary Islands.
His four-year flight seriously hampered Croatia’s bid to join the European Union. Zagreb, now set to join the bloc in July 2013, eventually opened EU membership talks two months before his arrest.