UN prosecutor disappointed at tribunal's decision to reverse Croat generals' convictions

The chief prosecutor of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal expressed disappointment Wednesday that appeals judges at the U.N. court overturned the convictions of two Croat generals for involvement in violence that drove thousands of Serbs from their homes and left hundreds dead.

The generals, Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac, were released last Friday after the appeals judges, by a 3-2 majority, reversed convictions for crimes including murder and illegal deportations during a 1995 military campaign known as Operation Storm.

In an unusual step, the Hague tribunal's chief prosecutor, Serge Brammertz, issued a statement saying his office was "disappointed by the outcome."

Brammertz said he is aware Serb victims "are not satisfied by the outcome and feel their suffering has not been acknowledged."

That was putting it mildly.

The judgment sparked fury in Serbia, where many see the UN court as biased against them because the majority of the war criminals it has convicted have been Serbs.

The country's nationalist President Tomislav Nikolic called the appeals ruling "scandalous" and warned it would "not contribute to the stabilization of the situation in the region, but will reopen all wounds."

Serbia's own war crimes prosecutor, Vladimir Vukcevic, said Wednesday that his office has opened six investigations of alleged war crimes committed against Serbs during Operation Storm. He said Serbian authorities had previously deferred to UN prosecutors but that the release of Gotovina and Markac has forced them to investigate.

The news of Serbia's investigation triggered outrage in Croatia, with opposition leader and former interior minister Tomislav Karamarko saying "there will be no reconciliation" between the two bitter Balkan rivals before Serbia recognizes that it was the aggressor during the war.

Croatians viewed Gotovina and Markac's acquittals as vindication of their position that their nation was a victim in the 1990s Balkan wars. Thousands of cheering revelers, including veterans of Croatia's war of independence, packed the capital Zagreb's main square on Friday to give Gotovina and Markac a hero's welcome.

In The Hague, Brammertz said his office had to respect the appellate panel's decision, but it sounded like a grudging acceptance. He said his office would consider seeking a judicial review. Under the tribunal's rules, such a review can only be launched if new facts emerge that were not known at the time of the original conviction or appeals process.

He also pressed Croat prosecutors to investigate crimes committed during Operation Storm, when Croat forces launched a lightning offensive to drive Serbs from land they had seized early in the wars that erupted across the Balkans as the former Yugoslavia crumbled in the 1990s.

"We will also make sure that evidence collected by my Office will remain available to judicial authorities in the former Yugoslavia to facilitate national prosecutions for the crimes committed in connection with Operation Storm," Brammertz said. "We trust that the judicial authorities in Croatia will live up to their obligations."

The prosecutor also noted the criticism of the appeals judgment by the two appeals judges who disagreed with the majority's decision to acquit Golovina and Markac.


Associated Press writer Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Serbia, contributed.