BLEIBURG, Austria (AP) — Thousands of far-right supporters, many brandishing insignia and waving flags of Croatia's World War II Ustasha regime, gathered Saturday in a field in southern Austria to commemorate the massacre of pro-Nazis by victorious communists at the end of the war.
The annual event this year came amid a surge of far-right sentiments in the European Union's newest member. For Croatian nationalists, the Bleiburg site symbolizes their suffering under communism in Yugoslavia before they fought a war for independence in the 1990s.
Tens of thousands of Croatians, mostly Ustasha soldiers, fled to Bleiburg in May 1945 amid a Yugoslav communist offensive, only to be turned back from Austria by the British military and into the hands of revengeful antifascists. Thousands were killed and buried in mass graves in and around Bleiburg.
The Ustasha regime sent tens of thousands Serbs, Jews, Gypsies and Croatian anti-fascists to death camps during the war.
The gathering Saturday on a vast field surrounded by mountains was attended by top Croatian officials and Croatian Catholic Church clergy who held a mass for the killed Croats.
"All (WWII) victims deserve the same respect and reverence and the totalitarian regimes which committed the crimes deserve equal blame," Croatia's Deputy Prime Minister Bozo Petrov said after the ceremony. "We should stop divisions over the victims."
Since taking power in January, Croatia's center-right government has widely been blamed for turning a blind eye to the rising extremism and downplaying the crimes of the Ustasha regime. The policies have triggered protests from Croatia's minority Jewish and Serb communities.
"We are faced with an effort to totally relativize the Ustasha crimes," said the head of the Zagreb Jewish community, Ognjen Kraus. "It all started with such denials in Germany in 1933 and in Croatia in 1941."
The Croatian government, which has cracked down on free media and non-government organizations, has denied backing policies that counter EU standards, saying it's focused on major economic and social reforms and not the revival of the far-right sentiments.
On Saturday, the ultra-nationalists wore black T-shirts with the Ustashas' "U'' symbol and waved flags with inscriptions of their wartime chant "For the Homeland, Ready!"
"I'm here because my grandfather perished in the Bleiburg massacre," said Elvis Duspara, wearing a T-shirt with the chant. "We Croats were never aggressors, we only defended our homeland. That's why we proudly say: For the homeland, ready!"