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Croatian generals' war crime convictions overturned

Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac had been convicted of multiple crimes, including murder and deportation, committed during Croatia's 1995 ethnic cleansing campaign against Serbs.

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While supporters of the generals at home in Croatia cheered and set off fireworks, the acquittals enraged hardline opponents of the UN court in Serbia who accuse its judges of anti-Serb bias.

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The country's nationalist President Tomislav Nikolic said in a statement the "scandalous" decision by the Hague court was clearly "political and not legal" and "will not contribute to stabilization of the situation in the region but will reopen all wounds."

Vladimir Vukcevic, Serbia's war crimes prosecutor, also branded the ruling as "scandalous," saying it endangers the general principle that war crimes must be punished. "This was one of the biggest war crimes in the former Yugoslavia, murder, expulsion and endangering of several hundred thousand people and no one was held responsible," Mr. Vukcevic told The Associated Press.

Rasim Ljajic, the Serbian government official who deals with the tribunal, said the court has "lost all credibility."

"What happened today is just evidence of selective justice which is worse than any injustice," Ljajic said. "The decision will only worsen the perception of the tribunal in our public."

Gotovina's and Markac's convictions were one of the few at the tribunal to punish perpetrators of atrocities against Serb civilians. The majority of criminals convicted have been Serbs. The Bosnian Serb wartime leader and military chief, Radovan Karadzic and Gen. Ratko Mladic, are currently on trial for allegedly masterminding Serb atrocities.

Gotovina is especially popular among Croatian nationalists. The charismatic former soldier fought in the French Foreign Legion in the 1980s and spent four years on the run from justice before being captured in the Canary Islands in December 2005.

The verdicts against the two generals had triggered anti-Western sentiments among nationalist Croatians ahead of the country's planned European Union entry in July 2013.

European Commission spokesman Peter Stano said the EU's executive hopes "Croatia will continue to look to the future in spirit of tolerance and reconciliation which brought this country where it stands today on the threshold of EU membership."

The original convictions were based on a finding that Croat forces deliberately used illegal artillery attacks on four towns to drive Serb civilians from their homes. But appeals judges overturned that key finding and said that therefore no criminal conspiracy could be proven.

The majority said there was insufficient evidence to prove a campaign of illegal shelling, rejecting the trial judges' view that any shell that hit further than 200 meters (yards) from a legitimate military target was evidence of indiscriminate shelling. Judge Carmel Agius, in a written dissenting opinion Friday, called the appeals court's reasoning "confusing and extremely problematic."

There are no other Croat suspects on trial at the tribunal whose cases could be affected by the ruling.

Kehoe said the appeals judgment did not undermine the tribunal's credibility, but in fact proved its impartiality.

"Is it a vindication for the rule of law and justice? Yes it is," he said.

Croatian war veterans celebrated in the main square of the capital, Zagreb.

"Finally, we can say to our children that we are not war criminals," said veteran Djuro Vec. "We fought for justice, and that our fight was righteous and just."

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