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UN tribunal frees Croatian generals

Croatians lit flares Friday during a celebration in Zagreb marking the return of Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac.

AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Croatians lit flares Friday during a celebration in Zagreb marking the return of Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac.

ZAGREB, Croatia — Chanting ‘‘Victory! Victory!,’’ waving flags, and dancing in the streets, tens of thousands of jubilant supporters gave two Croatian generals a hero’s welcome Friday after a UN war crimes tribunal overturned their convictions for murdering and expelling Serb civilians during a 1995 military blitz.

Croatians viewed the decision to release Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac as vindication that they were victims in the Balkan wars in the 1990s, but neighboring Serbia denounced the ruling as a scandalous injustice toward tens of thousands of its compatriots expelled from Croatia after an offensive led by the two.

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The deep division over the generals could set back efforts to reconcile the two wartime enemies — the most bitter rivals in the Balkans.

A red carpet was laid out as a government plane carrying Gotovina and Markac from the Hague touched down in Zagreb, Croatia’s capital, and the two were welcomed by Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic and other top officials.

‘‘This is our joint victory,’’ Gotovina told a crowd singing patriotic songs at Zagreb’s main Bana Jelacica square. ‘‘We have won, the war is over, and let’s turn to the future.’’

The generals later attended a packed Mass held in Zagreb’s large gothic cathedral ‘‘to thank God’’ for their release.

The 3 to 2 majority decision in the UN court’s five-judge appeals chamber is one of the most significant reversals in the court’s 18-year history. It overturns a verdict that dealt a blow to Croatia’s self-image as a victim of atrocities, rather than a perpetrator, during the war.

Yet the ruling produced fury in Serbia, where it was seen as further evidence of anti-Serb ­bias at the UN tribunal. Even liberal Serbs warned that the ruling created a sense of injustice and could stir nationalist sentiments.

Serbia’s nationalist president, Tomislav Nikolic, declared that the ‘‘scandalous’’ court decision ‘‘will not contribute to stabilization of the situation in the region but will reopen all wounds.’’

Tens of thousands of people, including war veterans, celebrated in Zagreb’s main square. Some sobbed with joy while others ignited flares, sipping beer or wine from bottles.

“We can say to our children that we are not war criminals,’’ said veteran Djuro Vec. ‘‘We fought for justice, and that our fight was righteous and just.’’

In The Hague, neither ­Gotovina nor Markac showed emotion as Presiding Judge Theodor Meron told them they were free, but supporters in the gallery cheered and clapped.

Gotovina and Markac had been sentenced to 24 and 18 years respectively in 2011 for crimes including the murder and deportation of Serbs during the 1995 Croatian offensive dubbed ‘‘Operation Storm.’’ Judges ruled that both were part of a criminal conspiracy led by former president Franjo Tudjman to expel Serbs.

The fighting was part of the wars that erupted across the Balkans with the breakup 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.

Serbia claims that over 1,000 Serbs were killed and more than 200,000 driven from their homes during the Croatian operation. Tribunal prosecutors put the death toll lower, at 324, but told the court the victims included elderly and disabled villagers — many of whom were shot in the head.

But the appeals judges said prosecutors failed to prove the existence of such a conspiracy, effectively clearing Croatia’s entire wartime leadership of war crimes in the operation. It occurred at the end of Croatia’s battle to secede from the crumbling Yugoslavia and involved grabbing back land along its border with Bosnia that was earlieroccupied by rebel Serbs.

Vesna Skare Ozbolt, former legal adviser for Tudjman, said the verdict ‘‘corrects all wrongs about our just war,’’ and ‘‘proves that there was no ethnic cleansing in Croatia and that it was all lies.’’

Tudjman died in 1999 while under investigation.

Serbs were furious.

‘‘As far as I understand this ruling, it is perfectly normal and legal to kill Serbs since nobody is being held responsible for it,’’ said Stana Pajic, who fled the offensive. ‘‘I’m terribly shaken by this unjust verdict.’’

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