, ZAGREB, Apr 16 – Tens of thousands of people protested in Croatia Saturday, a day after a UN court handed down heavy war crimes sentences for two ex-generals, seen by many Croats as heroes.
On the central square in a rainy Zagreb an estimated 30,000 protesters gathered at the call of war veterans to listen to fiery speeches condemning both the verdicts and the Croatian government.
"We do not recognise The Hague court and its ruling, those who bear guilt for such verdicts are here", veterans\’ leader Mario Slavicek told the crowd.
The war veterans and their supporters who gathered to show their outrage at Friday\’s verdict blame present and previous governments for handing over the generals to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).
The crowd chanted "traitors" and "Jaco get out" in reference to current Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor.
Zeljko Sacic, one of the organisers of the protest and himself a retired police general, also slammed Croatia\’s pro-European government and the ICTY.
"We will not allow them to make us, the victims, the aggressors," he vowed to the crowd.
"We demand that the current government steps down and calls parliamentary elections immediately," he said, also insisting on an immediate halt to European Union accession talks.
"Our current legal and negotiating position is additionally weakened due to this verdict," he said.
The crowd removed a big EU flag from a stand in the central square, tore it apart and replaced it with a Croatian flag before the gathering ended without further incident.
Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac were jailed for 24 and 18 years respectively after the court in The Hague found they had conspired with the Croatian wartime leadership to commit crimes against ethnic Serbs.
Dubravka Guberac, 66, who was forced out of Vukovar by rebel Serbs at the start of the 1991-95 war and whose husband died fighting in the Croatian army, was devastated by the ruling.
"Not only the generals were sentenced but the whole of the Croatian people," she told AFP tearfully.
"My husband gave his life for Croatia: does that mean he would be indicted today and that my children should be ashamed of their father?" she asked.
Croatia as a whole reacted to the verdicts with shock. A particular sore point for most Croats is the court\’s ruling that the generals were part of a "joint criminal enterprise" hatched with late president Franjo Tudjman to drive tens of thousands of Croatian Serbs out of Krajina.
Kosor called the finding "unacceptable" on Friday and vowed that the government would do its utmost to have it withdrawn on appeal.
In Croatia where the 1991-95 war is referred to as the homeland or independence war many find it hard to swallow that they are labeled aggressors when they see themselves as victims of the regime of Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic who opposed Croatia\’s independence.
Local media on Saturday also voiced anger at the verdicts, labelling them a "condemnation" of Croatia.
Gotovina and Markac were convicted of the persecution and murder of more than 300 ethnic Serbs during and after an August 1995 military operation to recapture Croatia\’s Krajina region from Belgrade-backed Serbs.
A third former general, Ivan Cermak, was acquitted Friday and flew back to Croatia aboard a government plane and was welcomed by Kosor.
Saturday\’s demonstrations come at a sensitive moment for Croatia, which is in the final phase of European Union accession talks. It has seen a series of anti-government protests in the past two months against economic hardship.
War veterans also staged protests in three other major cities — Rijeka, Split and Zadar — on Saturday, but local media said they only drew up to 500 people in each location.