Croatia celebrates, Serbia mourns military operation 20 years on

Croatia celebrates, Serbia mourns military operation 20 years on

Zagreb (AFP) - Zagreb cheered and Belgrade wept on Tuesday as they marked the 20th anniversary of Operation Storm, which ended the war sparked by Croatia's proclamation of independence from Yugoslavia and caused an exodus of Croatian Serbs.

Croatia started celebrating its "liberation" with a military parade, with some 3,000 soldiers and war veterans, 300 vehicles and 30 aircraft in the capital Zagreb, gathering thousands of spectators.

Another ceremony, attended by top officials, will be held on Wednesday in the town of Knin, a wartime rebel Serb stronghold that Croatian troops recaptured on August 5, 1995.

"Operation Storm was a turning point (in the conflict), a brilliant military operation, justified and legitimate," Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic said in a speech at a defence ministry ceremony, encouraging citizens to be "proud and dignified" during the festivities.

The Croatian army launched Operation Storm on August 4, 1995, and in an 84-hour offensive it saw 130,000 troops recapture a region that had been in Serb hands since 1991.

Sources differ on the number of ethnic Serbs who were brutally killed in the offensive, with tolls ranging from 600 to 2,500.

More than 200,000 others fled Croatia during and after the operation, with their property looted, seized or burned down. Barely half of those who fled have since returned.

Operation Storm ushered in the end of the war that in total claimed about 20,000 lives.

The four-year conflict was sparked by Croatia's proclamation of independence from Yugoslavia, which was opposed by Belgrade-backed rebel Serbs.

- Serbian day of mourning -

While Croatia celebrates the anniversary as its Victory Day, Serbia has declared Wednesday an official day of mourning and brands the operation the worst instance of ethnic cleansing in Europe in recent history.

Thousands of people attended an official commemoration held in the northwestern Serbian town of Sremska Raca, where hundreds of thousands of refugees took shelter 20 years ago.

They were joined by top Serb leaders including Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik and Serbian Orthodox Church patriarch Irinej.

Vucic and Dodik symbolically met on a bridge separating Bosnia and Serbia that was crowded back in August 1995 by vast numbers of Croatian Serbs fleeing in cars and tractors.

The two leaders threw wreaths into the Sava river in memory of the victims.

Addressing the crowd, Vucic said it was "hard to find more sad day in recent Serbian history than this one".

"We have peace with Croatia and we are going to preserve it, and we wish to have the best relations. I hope we will also be good friends in the European Union. But today, we send a message that the crime should be forgiven but must not be forgotten," Vucic said.

Speaking earlier in the day at another ceremony to commemorate the victims, Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic chided the celebrations in Croatia.

"These fools have turned your hearths into fire, celebrating your suffering as their victory," he said.

Two former Croatian generals -- Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac -- were initially sentenced by a UN court to prison terms of 24 and 18 years respectively for war crimes committed against ethnic Serbs.

The verdict was overturned by an appeals court and the two were eventually released.

In Croatia, local prosecutors have charged a total of three people for war crimes committed against Serbs during and after the Operation Storm, but so far only one person has been sentenced, receiving a seven-year jail term last year.

Ethnic Serbs are still Croatia's largest minority, accounting for 4.5 percent of the population of 4.2 million -- down from pre-war levels of 12 percent.