BELGRADE Serbia's special war crimes court on Tuesday sentenced 14 former Yugoslav Army soldiers and paramilitaries to a total of 128 years in jail for the 1991 killings of 70 Croat civilians, some of whom were ordered to walk through a minefield.
In a ruling Belgrade hopes will boost its chances of joining the European Union, the court said it had been proven beyond doubt that the defendants were guilty of the killings, and of mistreating and torturing the civilian population.
In October 1991, the Serb-controlled Yugoslav People's Army, allied with paramilitaries and local Serbs, swooped on the village of Lovas in eastern Croatia, immediately killing 22 ethnic Croats in their homes, the court said.
"They also killed another 23 people in improvised prisons ... and forced civilians to walk through a mine field, which resulted in the deaths of 22 people," it added. "Another three people were killed in isolated incidents."
Serbia and the other countries that once made up the now defunct six-republic Yugoslavia are still struggling to come to terms with the wars that tore it apart in the 1990s, plunging Europe into bloodshed.
"With this (ruling) we have sent a reconciliatory message to all the war crimes victims throughout former Yugoslavia," Bruno Vekaric, the assistant war crime prosecutor, told reporters in Belgrade.
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Serbia, a candidate for EU membership, is trying to show the 27-nation bloc it is serious about prosecuting war crimes from the period in order to dispel concerns that it has dragged its feet over doing so in the past.
It hopes that such prosecutions - particularly in cases where the victims were non-Serbs - will speed up its efforts to join the EU.
After former strongman Slobodan Milosevic was ousted in 2000, Serbia said it was trying to step up its efforts to apprehend war criminals and extradite them to the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague or to try them at home.
Milosevic himself died at the U.N. detention facility in The Hague while defending himself against charges he was guilty of war crimes and had fomented the Yugoslav wars.
Last year, Serbia arrested and extradited the two remaining most-wanted war crimes fugitives, Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic - sought for genocide - and Goran Hadzic, the 1991-1995 wartime leader of rebel Serbs in Croatia.
Serbia's top war crime prosecutor said last week his office was investigating 13 people, including a former top-ranking security official, on suspicion of helping war crimes fugitives evade justice.
The U.N. war crimes tribunal plans to close by 2014, and the remaining cases have been handed to domestic courts. Serbia has already sentenced scores of war crime suspects.
(Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Zoran Radosavljevic and Andrew Osborn)