NOVI SAD, Serbia (Reuters) - The emaciated horses standing forlornly in a dusty field in northern Serbia are all that is left of a magnificent herd of white Lipizzaners.
There were nearly 90 of the famous breed when they became war refugees in 1991, losing their stables in the town of Lipik to shelling as Croatia fought for independence from Yugoslavia and Croatian Serbs rebelled.
Recent pictures of eight remaining horses at a farm near the city of Novi Sad have alarmed officials and animal lovers.
Mihajlo Komasovic, a worker in the then state-owned stables, followed the herd in a seven-year search for a home. He says he felt responsible and regrets the move to Novi Sad.
“When I see them now, I think bringing them here was my biggest mistake,” Komasovic said.
Croatian media called on their government to rescue the “stolen” horses — owned by the local council in socialist Yugoslavia — from a sorry plight. Croatian horse-lover Nives Cimerman offered her estate as a haven for the survivors.
Malnourished, with sores and scratches on their white skin, the horses look nothing like the stars of Vienna’s Spanish Riding School which made the breed famous.
They are poorly kept, and reduced to scrounging.
“They often come to our property looking for food and eating like they have not eaten for a long time,” local media quoted residents of the neighboring farms as saying.
The Lipizzaners, named after a stud founded in 1580 in Lipica, then part of Austria’s Habsburg Empire and now in Slovenia, were brought to Lipik in 1982. “When the war broke out in Croatia the horses were forced to leave,” Komasovic said.
As the conflict spread across former Yugoslavia it got harder to find a proper home, he said. In November 1991 the horses went to Bosnia, but were forced to leave days before the 1992-95 war began there, due to lack of food.
From Bosnia, Komasovic followed them to the Karadjordjevo army facility on the border between Croatia and Serbia, before they were finally moved close to Novi Sad in 1998. In 2002 and 2003 some 30 horses died.
When film of the horses was broadcast on Serbian television this week, Croatian Agriculture Minister Petar Cobankovic wrote to his Serbian counterpart asking him to take action.
Slobodan Milosavljevic, the Serbian agriculture minister, visited the stables this week and brought 20 tonnes of food for the horses. Veterinarians arrived to examine them.
“We shall try and resolve the problem of Lipizzaners together with Croatian government,” Milosavljevic said.
Serb media report the owner of the farm where the horses are now says he is willing to let them go back to their home stable in Croatia, provided he is paid 300,000 euros ($400,000) to compensate for almost 10 years of accommodation and food.