Zagreb (AFP) - The Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Center on Wednesday condemned the Croatian president for praising the country's immigrants to Argentina and warned they included many officials of its World War II pro-Nazi regime.
Visiting Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic said earlier this week in Buenos Aires that "after WWII many Croatians sought and found indeed in Argentina the space of freedom where they were able to prove their patriotism".
But her remarks were strongly criticised by the Nazi hunters who warned that Croatian immigrants to Argentina included a number of the country's WWII Ustasha regime officials.
Her remarks "constitute a blanket whitewash of some of the worst criminals of WWII", the centre's top Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff said in a statement.
"The only question is whether her statement stemmed from admiration for these murderous Ustasha or ignorance of their postwar escape."
Croatian immigrants to Argentina included Ustasha leader Ante Pavelic, secret police chief Eugen Dido Kvaternik and commander of their most notorious concentration camp Dinko Sakic.
Sakic was extradited from Argentina to Croatia in 1998 for a trial and was sentenced to 20 years in jail. He died in prison in 2006.
Grabar-Kitarovic's remarks were also criticised by the opposition and some independent media.
However, the president rejected the criticism as a "malicious interpretation of her statement".
In a letter to Zuroff she accused him of "repeated attempts to impose a collective stigma on Croatia, Croatian people and Croatian immigrants" which she deemed "unacceptable".
According to some estimates about 100 Ustasha fled to Argentina after WWII.
The Ustasha persecuted and killed hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Jews, Roma and anti-fascist Croatians.
For the past few years critics accuse Croatia's authorities of downplaying the atrocities committed by the Ustasha and turning a blind eye to a surge of nostalgia for the pro-Nazi past.