ZAGREB (Reuters) - Several thousand Croats protested on Saturday against The Hague convicting two former Croatian generals whose trial was a condition of Croatia’s attempt to join the European Union.
Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac were jailed on Friday by the U.N. war crimes court for 24 and 18 years respectively for orchestrating a campaign of murder and plunder to drive some 200,000 Serbs from a rebel enclave of Croatia in 1995.
Gotovina’s arrest in 2005 removed a serious obstacle to Croatia’s start of talks to join the EU, which insists that all former Yugoslav republics arrest war crimes suspects from the 1990s conflict before joining the bloc.
Some analysts say a widespread perception that the rulings at the Hague tribunal do not properly reflect the events in the Yugoslav wars may raise an anti-EU sentiment among Croats at a time when Croatia hopes to wrap up the accession talks.
Croatia hopes to complete the talks in the coming months and hold a referendum on the EU entry soon afterwards.
Protesters in the main square in Zagreb carried Croatian flags and banners saying “I love Croatia, not in the European Union,” as well as chanting “Treason” because of what organizers say is the failure of political leaders to protect the dignity of war veterans.
Similar protest rallies were also scheduled for this weekend in other bigger Croatian cities.
Croatia fought a four year independence war against rebel Serbs backed and armed by Belgrade during which many Croatian towns and villages suffered destruction and many non-Serbs were expelled from their homes.
For many Croats, Gotovina, 55, who denied the tribunal’s charges, is a titan of Croatia’s “Homeland War,” in particular for his role in the four-day blitz by the U.S.-equipped Croatian army to wrest back the rebel Krajina region.
The generals’ lawyers said they would appeal against the verdicts and the Croatian government said it would fight with all legal means against the ruling that said Croatia’s action to liberate the occupied territory was a joint criminal enterprise.
Reporting by Igor Ilic, edited by Alison Williams