Zagreb (AFP) - Croatia and Bosnia on Thursday slammed the acquittal of far-right Serb leader Vojislav Seselj on war crimes charges in a ruling that threatened to damage already fragile relations in the Balkans.
UN judges at The Hague found Seselj not guilty on all nine counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity arising from the 1990s Balkan conflicts, shocking many across the region.
Croatian leaders condemned the verdict as "shameful" and underlined their outrage by banning the 61-year-old Serbian Radical Party leader from entering the country.
The ruling was however celebrated by Seselj's supporters, some of whom drove through Srebrenica in Bosnia -- where around 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed by Bosnian Serb forces in the war -- honking their car horns and waving flags, the town mayor told AFP.
Prosecutors alleged Seselj was behind the murder of many Croat, Muslim and other non-Serb civilians, as well as the forced deportation of "tens of thousands" from large areas of Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia, leading volunteers known as "Seselj's men".
But judges at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) declared him a free man after finding there was insufficient evidence to convict him.
- 'Committed evil' -
"Croatia cannot and will not accept this shameful verdict and we will continue to do everything we can so that justice is served," said Croatia's President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, according to the state-run HINA news agency.
Croatian Prime Minister Tihomir Oreskovic said Seselj "committed evil and did not show any remorse, neither then nor today".
Police spokeswoman Helena Biocic told AFP that Seselj was banned from entering the country because he could represent a threat to public order.
A defiant Seselj, who returned to Belgrade for cancer treatment in 2014, retorted that he did not recognise Croatia's independence but would go there "to have a walk" in Zagreb.
"If they forbid me I'll launch a judicial procedure," he said.
Seselj served as Serbia's deputy prime minister from 1998 to 2000 and plans to stand in a general election in late April.
He said the tribunal judges had "shown that their professionalism and honour are above any political pressure" and brought "the only possible verdict".
Having spent nearly 12 years in detention at The Hague and more time awaiting a verdict, Seselj said he would seek 14 million euros ($16 million) in compensation.
- 'Defeat of justice' -
Protesting against the "defeat of justice", a few dozen civil activists rallied in Zagreb, while Bosnian Muslims also expressed anger and bewilderment.
"The verdict rightly provoked anger because a war criminal was acquitted," said Bakir Izetbegovic, the Muslim member and chairman of Bosnia's tripartite presidency.
"It is quite clear that Seselj had organized, armed, inspired and encouraged criminals to enter Bosnia and Croatia and to commit crimes and ethnic cleansing," he said.
Fikret Grabovica, who leads an association of parents whose children were killed in the war, said drily that the verdict "only lacked the judges concluding that Seselj's paramilitary units had in fact been on a peace mission in Bosnia".
Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic, once Seselj's closest ultranationalist ally, said he was "indifferent" to the news.
Jovo Bakic, a sociology professor at Belgrade University, said Seselj's acquittal would "further sharpen already strained relations" in the region.
His comments were echoed by those of Serbian activist Aleksandar Popov at the prominent Centre for Regionalism, who said the ruling was an "enormous injustice" that would likely damage regional ties.
"There have been sparks with regard to Seselj even before this, and now the situation is just going to get more complicated instead of us moving on," Popov told the N1 news channel.