The UN's highest court has dismissed claims by Serbia and Croatia that the other committed genocide during the 1990s war between the two countries, sparked by the breakup of Yugoslavia.
The International Court of Justice said Serb forces committed widespread crimes in Croatia early in the war, but these did not amount to genocide. The 17-judge panel then ruled that a 1995 Croat offensive to win back territory from rebel Serbs also featured serious crimes, but did not reach the level of genocide.
Tuesday's decision was not unexpected, as the U.N.'s Yugoslav war crimes tribunal, a separate court also based in The Hague, has never charged any Serbs or Croats with genocide in one another's territory. The ruling ends 16 years of legal wrangling between the two nations and could help put to rest lingering animosities.
Croatia brought the case to the world court in 1999, asking judges to order Belgrade to pay compensation. Serbia later filed a counterclaim, alleging genocide by Croat forces during the 1995 "Operation Storm" military campaign.
Croatia had accused Serbia of genocide in the town of Vukovar and several smaller villages in 1991. The Serbian government, in turn, filed a counter claim over the expulsion of 230,000 Serbs from Croatia in 1995, after the country had secured independence from the former Yugoslavia.
Vukovar was occupied by Serbian troops for three months in 1991. Approximately 260 Croat men were detained and later killed, while tens of thousands more were forced to flee.
In all, an estimated 20,000 people died during the conflict. The former Yugoslavia was formed after World War II and consisted of six republics: Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Slovenia. Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Macedonia all declared their independence in the 1990s, sparking years of conflict. Montenegro declared independence from Serbia in 2006.
Rejecting both cases, court President Peter Tomka stressed that many crimes happened during fighting between Serbia and Croatia and urged Belgrade and Zagreb to work together toward a lasting reconciliation.
"The court encourages the parties to continue their cooperation with a view to offering appropriate reparation to the victims of such violations," Tomka told a packed Great Hall of Justice at the court's Hague headquarters, the Peace Palace.
Decisions by the International Court of Justice are final and legally binding.
Tomka said crimes including killings and mass expulsions by both sides constituted elements of the crime of genocide, but the judges ruled that neither Serbia nor Croatia carried out the crimes with the "specific intent" to destroy targeted populations.
Both countries expressed disappointment that the court had rejected their claims, but said it is time to move on.
"We are not happy, but we accept the ruling in a civilized manner," Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic said. "It has been more than 20 years; Croatia is now a member of the European Union and can now build its future."
In Serbia, President Tomislav Nikolic said that although the court did not back the Serbian genocide claim it did "reverse some usual stereotypes" that Serbs were the only culprits for the war.
"Despite the injustice, an encouraging step has been made," Nikolic said in a televised statement. He expressed hope Serbia and Croatia will move on "in good faith
The case brought by Croatia was not the first time Serbia had faced allegations of genocide at the world court.
In a landmark 2007 judgment, judges cleared Belgrade of committing genocide in the 1995 massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the Bosnian enclave of Srebrenica, but said Serbia breached the genocide convention by failing to prevent the slaughter, Europe's worst mass slaying since World War II.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.