Anger at a U.N. court's jailing of a Croatian war hero erupted into fury at the European Union and this country's pro-Western government on Saturday when thousands of enraged veterans of the Balkan conflict tore EU flags and denounced the conservative administration.
The court in The Hague, Netherlands, on Friday sentenced Gen. Ante Gotovina to 24 years in prison for atrocities committed by his troops during "Operation Storm" _ a 1995 military offensive designed to drive the Serb rebels out a swath of Croatia they had occupied.
The battle sealed Croatia's independence from Serb-led Yugoslavia after four years of conflict with minority Serbs.
The convictions of Gotovina and another wartime general, Mladen Markac, dealt a blow to Croatia's self-image as a victim rather than perpetrator of atrocities. Croatia has always seen itself as a victim of the Serb aggression and portrayed Gotovina and the other generals as heroes who helped defeat its more powerful neighbor, Serbia.
The war veterans and other supporters protesting Saturday on Zagreb's main square and other Croatian cities believe Gotovina is innocent and is not responsible for war crimes committed during the offensive.
"We are still in shock after yesterday's verdicts," said Denis Mladenovic, one of the speakers at the Zagreb rally. "They jailed our heroes who defended our country against the Serbian aggression."
The protesters chanted "Treason! Treason!" and carried banners "We Love Croatia, No to the EU," denouncing the Croatia's conservative government, its prime minister and the liberal president, claiming they did nothing to save the generals from U.N. war crimes prosecution.
Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor rejected the accusations, saying "we did everything to help the legal defense" of the generals. She reiterated that the verdicts are "unacceptable" for Croatia, and said that her government will actively take part in the appeals of the two generals.
The pro-Western government has faced months of street protests and calls for early elections amid the declining economy, high inflation, unemployment and alleged corruption. It hopes to complete its accession talks with the EU in June, hold a membership referendum, and then announce elections that would be held before they are scheduled in March next year.
A speaker at the Zagreb protest said the signing of the accession agreement with the EU would represent "the final capitulation of the Croatian state." The protesters tore and stomped on several EU flags and demanded that the government immediately stop the membership negotiations with the 27-nation bloc.
The protesters displayed a Croatian and a U.S. flag linked with a banner reading: "Together in 1995." Croatia received active U.S. support during Operation Storm, as well as throughout its war for independence.
Gotovina and Markac, who received 18 years in jail, were found guilty of murder, expulsion, plunder and other crimes against humanity. A third general, Ivan Cermak, was acquitted of all charges.
Operation Storm forced more than 200,000 Serbs to flee their homes. Soldiers and special Croatian police roamed from village to village, killing around 600 people and abusing villagers _ many of them elderly, according to Friday's judgment.
(This version corects figure of Serb victims in last paragraph.)