Hague appeal tribunal frees jailed Croatian officers

Fri Nov 16, 2012 11:50am EST
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By Svebor Kranjc

THE HAGUE (Reuters) - The most senior Croatian military officer convicted of war crimes during the Balkan wars of the 1990s was freed on appeal on Friday in a decision that will strain already fraught relations between Croatia and its old enemy Serbia.

General Ante Gotovina was cleared by appeal judges at the U.N. war crimes tribunal after being convicted of targeting hospitals and other civilian sites during a military operation to retake Croatia's Krajina region from rebel Serbs.

Gotovina, hailed as a hero at home but reviled in neighboring Serbia, was freed along with Croatian police commander Mladen Markac.

Their acquittals were greeted with jubilation in the Croatian capital Zagreb where they received a raucous welcome from a crowd of 50,000 after being flown home by government jet.

"We are so happy to be with you tonight. This is our joint victory. The war now belongs to history, let us turn to the future. Thank you and good luck," Gotovina told the crowd from a stage in the main square wreathed in red smoke from thousands of flares.

"This is a moment of pride and glory for Croatia," said Josip Martinovic, a businessman who had joined the crowd.

But Serbia reacted with anger, saying the tribunal had forfeited the right to be considered neutral.

"It is now quite clear the tribunal has made a political decision and not a legal ruling. Today's ruling will not contribute to the stabilization of the situation in the region and will open old wounds," Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic said.   Continued...

Ante Gotovina (L), who was commander in the Split district of the Croatian army, and Mladen Markac (R), a former Croatian police commander, enter the courtroom of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal (ICTY) for their appeal judgement in The Hague November 16, 2012. REUTERS/Bas Czerwinski/Pool