The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has found Croatian General Ante Gotovina guilty of war crimes against Serbs and sentenced him to 24 years in prison.
Gotovina was found guilty of orchestrating a campaign of murder and plunder to drive 200,000 Serbs from the rebel enclave of Krajina in 1995. However, the general is regarded as a hero back in his homeland, where he is seen as having been instrumental in establishing Croatian independence.
A fellow general, Mladen Markac, was also sentenced to 18 years in jail for war crimes. A third general, Ivan Cermak, was cleared of all charges.
All three faced charges of overseeing the killing of more than 300 Serbs in one of the bloodiest episodes of the 1991-95 Balkans conflict.
The ICTY court said the convicted generals were part of a "joint criminal enterprise," together with then Croatian leader Franjo Tudjman, to permanently remove the Serb population from the Krajina region.
The Croatian government slammed the UN court's ruling as 'unacceptable.'
Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor said her government would do "everything possible" within the legal framework to appeal the decision.
Croatian President Ivo Josipovic, who had been a supporter of the independent tribunal, said the ruling "shocked" him.
"We are aware crimes were committed but I am convinced there was no joint criminal enterprise in the defense of Croatia," he said.
The generals are regarded as war heroes in Croatia, and the trial was broadcast live to crowds in the capital Zagreb's main square. Protests have already been scheduled for Saturday to demonstrate against the ICTY's decision.
The trial centered around action taken during the Croatian army's lightning offensive, Operation Storm, which seized back land annexed by rebel Serbs at the start of the Balkan conflict.
Operation Storm is seen in Croatia as having been a "legitimate way of reclaiming territory," said DW correspondent Mark Lowen in Zagreb.
The three generals are regarded in Croatia as war heroes for their role in leading the war of independence.
Although Operation Storm was a considerable military success, it was accompanied by the exodus of nearly 200,000 Serbs and the shelling of towns and villages. Operation Storm is commemorated every year in Croatia by a national holiday on August 5.
"One veteran told me this is not just a verdict about the three generals, but about the Croat nation," said Lowen. "It's a judgment on the very legitimacy of their independence struggle."
Before the verdict, Croatian Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor said she was convinced the ICTY would prove "Croatia led a just and liberating war."
Resistance to hand over Gotovina
Following his indictment by the ICTY, Gotovina went on the run from the authorities for four years. It was only under pressure from the EU and the US that Croatian authorities stepped up the manhunt, and Gotovina was finally arrested in Spain's Canary Islands in 2005.
Finding the fugitive had been a key term in the discussions with Croatia over joining the EU. In March 2005, the EU postponed the launch of accession talks because it was felt Zagreb was not doing enough to track down the former general.
His arrest sparked popular protests in Croatia. Even today billboard posters in support of the general can be seen along the Dalmatian coast.
Serbia has not been "transfixed" by the trial, and there is a general sense in the country of wanting to move on from the past, said Lowen, adding that the Serb refugees who were evicted from the Krajina region by Operation Storm do care about the verdict.
"Serbs believe they have been unfairly demonized as the sole aggressors," he said. The ICTY's verdict will go some way into showing the world there were atrocities on both sides.
"There is still a lot of anger, a lot of hurt, a lot of vitriol," added Lowen. "These verdicts can reopen old wounds and prevent relations from moving on."
Author: Catherine Bolsover (Reuters, dpa, AFP)
Editor: Nancy Isenson