August 5, 2015 / 1:46 PM / 5 years ago

Twenty years on, Croatia celebrates end of war as Serbia mourns

ZAGREB/BELGRADE (Reuters) - Croatia rolled out tanks and waved flags to mark the 20th anniversary on Wednesday of the blitz that ended its independence war while Serbia mourned the event as ‘the biggest ethnic cleansing since World War Two’.

People walk along a street during a memorial to mark the 20th anniversary of Croatia's four-day Operation Storm, in front of the parliament building in Belgrade, Serbia, August 5, 2015. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

The stark contrast in mood underscored how far apart the two ex-Yugoslav states remain despite moving to repair relations more than a decade ago.

After Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, its rebel Serbs, backed and armed from Belgrade by the late President Slobodan Milosevic, seized one-third of the territory while killing and expelling the local Croat population.

Zagreb’s revamped army retook most of the rebel-held lands in August 1995 in a four-day offensive code-named Operation Storm, which culminated with the capture on Aug. 5 of the rebel Serb stronghold of Knin.

“When Serbia’s politicians today state that the ‘Storm’ had genocidal intentions, I invite them to give up their myths, lies and delusions and to turn toward future,” Croatia’s President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic told a cheering rally in Knin.

“Croatia is not an enemy to Serbia, but will never allow anyone to draw an equation mark between the victims and the aggressors,” she told the rally made up of tens of thousands of war veterans, soldiers and ordinary Croats.

A day before, Croatia held a military parade in the capital Zagreb, the first in 20 years. Tanks, howitzers and armored vehicles rolled through the streets to the cheers of thousands of citizens, as jet fighters flew overhead.

“This celebration is not against anyone, but for us and our citizens. This was not a celebration of someone else’s misery,” said Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic after the parade.

In Serbia, the events from the summer of 1995 were marked with somber vigils and critical remarks from top politicians.

Up to 200,000 ethnic Serbs fled as Zagreb’s troops retook Croatian territory while advancing toward their borders and into Bosnia. Just a fraction of the ethnic Serbs have since returned to live in Croatia, which has meanwhile joined NATO and the European Union.

The plundering of Serb property and random killings of elderly Serb civilians that took place in the immediate aftermath of the offensive tarnished Croatia’s image and has remained a constant source of tension with Belgrade.

Serbia has declared Wednesday a day of national mourning. At noon, wailing air raid sirens brought the country to a standstill for a minute in remembrance of those killed and, according to Serbia, expelled from their homes during “Operation Storm”.

“This is the saddest day in Serbian history ... The operation Storm was ethnic cleansing and senseless slaughter of Serbs,” said Serbia’s Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, a former hardline nationalist during the 1990s wars who now wants to take Serbia into the European Union.

“With Croatia we live in peace, and soon we will be good friends in a common home, the European Union, but we want to send the clear message that the crime must be forgiven, but it cannot be forgotten,” he said.

Reporting by Igor Ilic in Zagreb and Ivana Sekularac in Belgrade; Editing by Tom Heneghan

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