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2005 file photo: Rosary beads and posters are held by supporters of Gen Gotvina at a rally in Split, Croatia. AP Photo/Darko Bandic
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UN court convicts Croatian hero General Gotovina of war crimes

Croatian war veterans and politicians denounce outcome of trial investigating atrocities perpetrated during the Balkan conflict of the early 90s.

A GENERAL HAILED as a hero in Croatia was branded a war criminal by a UN court today in a verdict that dealt a blow to the country’s self-image as a victim of atrocities, not a perpetrator, during the Balkan wars of the early 1990s.

Croatian war veterans denounced the outcome and said Gen Ante Gotovina was being persecuted for legitimate actions meant to liberate Serb-occupied territory.

The Yugoslav war crimes tribunal, created in 1993 while the Balkan wars were at their height, has convicted mostly Serb political and military leaders for plunging the region into the most vicious bloodletting in Europe since World War II.

Convictions

Gotovina and Gen Mladen Markac were convicted for their roles in “Operation Storm,” a 1995 military offensive intended to drive Serb rebels out of land they had occupied for years along Croatia’s southern border with Bosnia, and which was seen as the battle that sealed Croatia’s independence

Croatia’s ethnic war was one of a string of conflicts that erupted across the Balkans with the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The most deadly was in Bosnia, where Serbs battled Muslims and Croats in a four-year struggle that claimed some 100,000 lives.

In Croatia, ethnic Serbs backed by Serbia held the Krajina region for years. But as Belgrade’s forces were stretched in the closing days of the Bosnian war — and as former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic turned his back on the Croatian Serb rebels — Croatian forces seized the opportunity to strike back.

Croatian troops opened Operation Storm with artillery barrages that forced thousands of Serbs to flee their homes. Soldiers and special police then roamed from village to village, killing and abusing villagers — many of them elderly, according to Friday’s judgment.

Gotovina and Markac were found guilty of murder, expulsion, plunder and other crimes against humanity, and sentenced them to 24 and 18 years respectively.

A third general, Ivan Cermak, was acquitted of all charges. Gotovina’s lawyer Greg Kehoe said he would appeal the conviction.

Ringleader

The nearly-1,400-page ruling also passed judgment on Croatia’s wartime president, Franjo Tudjman, who received active US support in his struggle against Serbia and its president, Slobodan Milosevic. The verdict called Tudjman the ringleader of a criminal enterprise to ethnically cleanse the Krajina border region. Tudjman died in 1999 while under investigation by the tribunal.

The judgment said Tudjman gloated about Serbs’ fleeing the city of Knin, which was targeted by Croat artillery.

Thousands of Croatians in Zagreb jeered and booed the ruling as they watched a live broadcast. Some were frozen in disbelief, others wept.

Croatian Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor said it was “unacceptable” that Croatian heroes had been portrayed as leaders of a criminal enterprise.

“For us, despite the verdicts, the war for independence will remain a just and defensive war during which we maintained our freedom and democracy from the aggression and criminal policies of (former Serbian President) Slobodan Milosevic,” Croatia’sPresident Josipovic said.

- AP