THE HAGUE (Reuters) - A U.N. war crimes tribunal convicted a former Croatian general of orchestrating a campaign of murder and plunder to drive around 200,000 Serbs from a rebel enclave of Croatia, sentencing him to 24 years in prison.
Croatian Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor said her government would “use all legal means to fight” Friday’s ruling, which identified Gotovina -- along with the late Croatian President Franjo Tudjman -- as part of a criminal enterprise dedicated to expelling Serb residents of the country’s Krajina region.
“We will hold a cabinet session already today to discuss our next legal moves. Operation Storm was a legal operation to liberate occupied Croatian territory,” said Kosor.
She was referring to the 1995 offensive near the end of Croatia’s war for independence from federal Yugoslavia. Tudjman was independent Croatia’s first president. He was never indicted by the tribunal, and died in 1999.
Gotovina, 55, became a hero in his homeland for his role in the four-day blitz by the U.S.-equipped Croatian army to wrest back breakaway Krajina, and his arrest in 2005 in Spain’s Canary Islands triggered street protests in Croatia.
Gotovina was sentenced on Friday along with police general Mladen Markac, who was jailed for 18 years by the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, based in The Hague.
A group of war veterans announced a rally for Saturday in Zagreb’s central square in support of the two men.
The mountainous Krajina, which skirts the borders of Bosnia in southern and central Croatia, had been heavily settled by ethnic Serbs for centuries.
After Croatia declared independence in 1991, Serb militia armed by Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital, drove out around 80,000 Croats in a campaign of “ethnic cleansing” and then proclaiming their own Krajina republic.
In 2007, the tribunal convicted former Krajina Serb militia chief Milan Martic of war crimes and jailed him for 35 years. Former Krajina Serb “President” Milan Babic committed suicide in 2006 while serving a 13-year prison term for war crimes.
Gotovina and Markac were convicted of orchestrating the killing of dozens of Krajina Serbs and the shelling of their towns and villages as Croatian forces retook the isolated mountainous region. They had both pleaded not guilty.
Another former Croatian army general, Ivan Cermak, who had been accused of the same crimes, was acquitted.
“Mr Gotovina’s order to unlawfully attack civilians and civilian objects amounted to a significant contribution to the joint criminal enterprise,” Presiding Judge Alphons Orie said.
Gotovina’s arrest in 2005 removed a serious obstacle to Croatia’s bid to join the European Union, which insists that all Balkan states arrest war crimes suspects from the 1990s conflict before joining the bloc.
Croatia hopes to complete the EU entry talks in the coming months.