Croatian war veterans celebrate in central Zagreb after a live broadcast… (Nikola Solic / Associated…)
The Yugoslav war crimes tribunal on Friday overturned the convictions of two Croatian generals who led a 1995 assault against Serb-occupied territory, ruling that the trial court erred in judging the officers' action as an attack on civilians.
Gens. Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac showed little emotion when the presiding judge of the appeals panel at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia read out the 3-2 decision to reverse their convictions for crimes against humanity and violations of the law of war.
Crowds of supporters inside and outside the courtroom, however, erupted with cheers and applause.
Within hours, the men had been flown to the Croatian capital, Zagreb, to a hero's welcome as tens of thousands of Croats celebrated what they considered vindication of their military conduct during the war a generation ago in which they saw themselves as victims.
Gotovina and Markac, both 57, were in charge of the 1995 offensive called Operation Storm aimed at retaking the Krajina region of Croatia from Serb militant control. Krajina, which means borderland, is a long crescent of Serb-majority territory running along Croatia's mountainous border with Bosnia-Herzegovina to which Serbian soldiers fled centuries ago to escape Ottoman Turkish-occupied areas of the Balkans.
During the war crimes trial last year, the prosecution said Gotovina and Markac were responsible for an offensive that killed 324 Serb soldiers and civilians and forced about 90,000 people to flee their homes.
Krajina Serbs rebelled against the Croatian government in 1991, when late President Franjo Tudjman declared the republic's independence from the crumbling Yugoslav federation. Battles among Yugoslavia's dominant ethnic groups raged for nearly four years before the Dayton peace accords of late 1995 froze the fighting while maintaining the prewar republic borders.
While Croats popped champagne corks and sang nationalist songs in Zagreb's central Jelacic Square, politicians in Serbia denounced the tribunal's decision as an outrage that threatens to reopen old war wounds.
Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic declared the decision "scandalous" and accused the court of taking action that was "political and not legal," the Associated Press reported from Belgrade, the Serbian capital.
Gotovina had been sentenced to 24 years for his role in the Krajina offensive, and Markac was serving an 18-year term.
After word of the reversal and the tribunal's order that the two generals be freed immediately, Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic sent a government plane to bring the men home and headed the red-carpet welcome.
At the emotional rally in Zagreb, Gotovina urged his countrymen to put the deadly chapter of their history behind them.
"We have won, the war is over and let's turn to the future," news agencies quoted him as telling the crowd chanting their wartime call to arms and waving the checkerboard flag of now-independent Croatia.