A general hailed as a hero in Croatia was branded a war criminal by a U.N. court Friday in a verdict that dealt a blow to the country's self-image as a victim of atrocities, not a perpetrator, during the Balkan wars of the early 1990s.
Croatian war veterans denounced the outcome and said Gen. Ante Gotovina was being persecuted for legitimate actions meant to liberate Serb-occupied territory.
The Yugoslav war crimes tribunal, created in 1993 while the Balkan wars were at their height, has convicted mostly Serb political and military leaders for plunging the region into the most vicious bloodletting in Europe since World War II.
Gotovina and Gen. Mladen Markac were convicted for their roles in "Operation Storm," a 1995 military offensive intended to drive Serb rebels out of land they had occupied for years along Croatia's southern border with Bosnia, and which was seen as the battle that sealed Croatia's independence
Croatia's ethnic war was one of a string of conflicts that erupted across the Balkans with the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The most deadly was in Bosnia, where Serbs battled Muslims and Croats in a four-year struggle that claimed some 100,000 lives.
In Croatia, ethnic Serbs backed by Serbia held the Krajina region for years. But as Belgrade's forces were stretched in the closing days of the Bosnian war _ and as former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic turned his back on the Croatian Serb rebels _ Croatian forces seized the opportunity to strike back.
Croatian troops opened Operation Storm with artillery barrages that forced thousands of Serbs to flee their homes. Soldiers and special police then roamed from village to village, killing and abusing villagers _ many of them elderly, according to Friday's judgment.
Gotovina and Markac were found guilty of murder, expulsion, plunder and other crimes against humanity, and sentenced them to 24 and 18 years respectively.
A third general, Ivan Cermak, was acquitted of all charges. Gotovina's lawyer Greg Kehoe said he would appeal the conviction.
The nearly-1,400-page ruling also passed judgment on Croatia's wartime president, Franjo Tudjman, who received active U.S. support in his struggle against Serbia and its president, Slobodan Milosevic. The verdict called Tudjman the ringleader of a criminal enterprise to ethnically cleanse the Krajina border region. Tudjman died in 1999 while under investigation by the tribunal.
Thousands of Croatians in Zagreb jeered and booed the ruling as they watched a live broadcast. Some were frozen in disbelief, others wept.
"This is a verdict against the Croatian state," said Branko Borkovic, a former Croatian army commander. "All of us have been convicted, including the Republic of Croatia."
Croatian Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor said it was "unacceptable" that Croatian heroes had been portrayed as leaders of a criminal enterprise.
Croatia has always seen itself as a victim of Serb war crimes and portrayed Gotovina and Markac as heroes who helped defeat its powerful neighbor, Serbia.
The two countries have long traded accusations that their forces were responsible for atrocities. In 1999, Zagreb filed a genocide case against Serbia at the International Court of Justice, the U.N. legal forum for disputes among states. Belgrade filed a counterclaim alleging genocide by Croatia during Operation Storm.
Current Croatian President Ivo Josipovic said he was "shocked" by the verdicts, especially the allegation that Zagreb authorities planned a campaign of indiscriminate shelling and persecution to drive Serbs out of Krajina.
But the judges were clear that the plan to target civilians came from the top.
The "Croatian political and military leadership took the decision to treat whole towns as targets for the initial artillery attack," the three-judge panel wrote.
The judgment said Tudjman gloated about Serbs' fleeing the city of Knin, which was targeted by Croat artillery.
"They were gone in a few days as if they had never been here, as I said ... they did not even have time to collect their rotten money and dirty underwear," Tudjman said in a speech cited in the judgment.
Gotovina's lawyers argued that the artillery attacks were aimed solely at legitimate military targets, not civilians.
But the first prosecution witness in the case told judges artillery shells rained down on Knin, hitting apartment blocks and a medical clinic. "As I ran, shells were falling around me," said the witness, whose identity was not released by the court.
The verdicts were a "first step to truth and justice for many victims," said Nicola Duckworth, director of Amnesty International's Europe and Central Asia Program. "It shows that even the most high-level perpetrators of crimes under international law cannot evade justice."
The court said that while widespread plundering, murders, and cruel and inhuman treatment of civilians were not part of the plan, they were an inevitable consequence that the plotters could have foreseen but did not try to prevent or punish.
The offensive left dozens of people dead and forced tens of thousands to flee their homes. Croatian troops and special police went from village to village in the days after the operation, killing and mistreating Serb villagers who had been unable to flee, it said.
Witnesses said during the trial that one elderly Serb woman was forced to strip to her underwear and play basketball. Presiding Judge Alphons Orie cited one witness who recalled finding his elderly mother and mentally ill brother shot dead after hearing a Croatian soldier say, "I killed another one." Another man was tied to a tree and surrounded with material that was then set ablaze.
"For us, despite the verdicts, the war for independence will remain a just and defensive war during which we maintained our freedom and democracy from the aggression and criminal policies of (former Serbian President) Slobodan Milosevic," President Josipovic said.
Associated Press reporters Dusan Stojanovic in Zagreb, Jovana Gec in Belgrade and Aida Cerkez in Sarajevo contributed to this report.