Two Croatian generals have arrived in Zagreb to a hero's welcome after a United Nations court in The Hague cleared them of war crimes against Serbs during a key battle for Croatia's independence.
Tens of thousands of people waving Croatian flags and singing nationalist songs gathered in Croatia's capital Friday evening where generals Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac addressed the crowds to express their gratitude for years of unwavering support.
Earlier, cheers and applause erupted in a packed public gallery at the U.N. court in the Netherlands as Judge Theodor Meron acquitted the men. Euphoric shouts echoed across Croatian cities where crowds gathered to await the final verdicts.
In 2010, a lower court in The Hague sentenced Gotovina and Markac to 24 and 18 years in prison respectively on charges that they were responsible for war crimes committed in the aftermath of the 1995 operation Storm, which was undertaken to liberate a Serb-held region on the Croatian territory.
The generals appealed the verdict and were acquitted of all charges earlier Friday.
In Serbia, citizens and politicians reacted with shock and fury at the acquittal.
Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic said the decision will open old wounds, referring to ethnic Serbs who fled their homes in Croatia during the war and have not been able to return.
Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Rasim Ljajic said The Hague tribunal had “lost all its credibility.”
A spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, Victoria Nuland, told reporters Friday that the United States accepts the decision of the U.N.'s appeal panel and that it supports the ruling.
“Let me just say that the United States did not play any role in the Gotovina and Markac cases. We did not submit any briefs on behalf of either the prosecution or the defense and we don't have any particular comment on any issue in this case, but we do respect ICTY (The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia ) and we respect its rulings.”
Croatian President Ivo Josipovic said the acquittal was a vindication for Croatia. During a reception for the generals, the president told Gotovina and Markac that they had been blamed for someone else's crimes, but that law and justice won in the end.
He added that Croatia remains committed to taking care of all victims and punishing the individual crimes.