A war crimes court in The Hague has overturned the convictions of two Croatian generals charged with atrocities against Serbs in the 1990s.
Appeals judges ordered the release of Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac.
In 2011 they were sentenced to 24 years and 18 years respectively over the killing of ethnic Serbs in an offensive to retake Croatia’s Krajina region.
The men arrived in Zagreb later on Friday to a hero’s welcome. But their release was condemned in Serbia.
At the scene
Celebrations here in General Gotovina’s hometown went on long into the night.
People danced in the main square in front of the church and let off fireworks. Many of them were swathed in large Croatian flags.
The bars and cafes in this small seaside town on the Adriatic coast were doing a roaring business.
Two girls said they had come all the way from Zagreb – saying that they couldn’t stay away.
One young man said it was an important moment: “The war actually ended now, I think. The aggression finished in 1995, but the legal issues and everything has finished now.”
Many Croatians see this acquittal as a vindication – not just for the generals, but for Croatia’s reputation, as it prepares to join the European Union.
The EU is likely to be much more popular now, one man said.
On Friday morning, the presiding judge at the tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, Theodor Meron, said the court had entered “a verdict of acquittal” for Gen Gotovina and Gen Markac, both aged 57.
Last year the two men were convicted of murder, persecution and plunder.
Judges at the time ruled that they were part of a criminal conspiracy led by late Croatian President Franjo Tudjman to “permanently and forcibly remove” the Serb civilian population from Krajina.
But on Friday, Judge Meron said there had been no such conspiracy.
The appeals judges also said the 2011 trial chamber had “erred in finding that artillery attacks” ordered by Gen Gotovina and Gen Markac on Krajina towns “were unlawful”.
The two former generals have always argued that they did not deliberately attack civilians.
Court officials also said prosecutors would not appeal against the ruling, describing it as “the final judgement”.
Neither defendant showed emotion in court, but their supporters in the gallery hugged each other and clapped after the verdict.
The UN war crimes court has lost all credibility”
Rasim LjajicSerbian Deputy Prime Minister
In Zagreb’s main square, thousands of people – who watched the proceedings live on giant TV – burst into applause.
“Our generals are heroes because they risked their lives to save our country and liberate the people,” student Andjela Anic, 26, was quoted as saying by the AFP news agency.
“The verdict confirms everything that we believe in Croatia: that generals Gotovina and Markac are innocent,” Croatian President Ivo Josipovic said.
On Thursday, candle-lit vigils were held in Zagreb and Catholic churches around the country as war veterans and bishops asked supporters to “raise their voices against injustice”.
After the verdict, the two former generals were driven from The Hague to nearby Rotterdam airport before boarding the government plane to fly back home.
“I think it is only fair to get the boys back home,” Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic told reporters.
The acquittal has been universally welcomed in Croatia and, equally, almost universally condemned in Serbia.
It means that no Croats from Croatia (as opposed to Croats from Bosnia-Hercegovina) have been convicted by the UN’s war crimes tribunal.
For Croats, this vindicates their belief that their generals are heroes and not war criminals; and for Serbs it consolidates a deeply held belief that the tribunal is a kangaroo court, whose main aim was to vilify and convict Serbs.
The core of the case was that the generals were part of a conspiracy, a “joint criminal enterprise” along with late Croatian President Franjo Tudjman to “permanently remove” the Serbs from what was then their self-proclaimed breakaway state in Croatia.
In simple language, they were accused of a plot to ethnically cleanse the region and up to 200,000 did indeed flee or were ethnically cleansed.
The appeal reverses that finding and hence says that there was no joint criminal enterprise.
The fact that crimes were committed during the Croatian retaking of Krajina is not contested and there have been convictions in the Croatian courts for this.
But the core of the matter today is that the tribunal in The Hague is saying that there was no over-arching plan to, in effect, commit war crimes.
Meanwhile, Serbia’s President Tomislav Nikolic condemned the verdict as “political”, saying it “will open old wounds”.
Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Rasim Ljajic said The Hague tribunal had “lost all its credibility”, Serbia’s Beta news agency reported.
Mr Ljajic said the appeals decision was “proof of selective justice which is worse than any injustice”.
He added that it was “a move backwards and the public opinion of the tribunal (in Serbia) will be worse than it already is”.
Gen Gotovina and Gen Markac were last year convicted over the Croatian offensive in Krajina, which had been under Serbian control since the start of the war in 1991.
About 200,000 ethnic Serbs were driven from Croatia in 1995 and at least 150 were killed in a military offensive in Krajina known as Operation Storm.
The operation to retake the region was ordered by Mr Tudjman. The Croatian leader died in 1999 while under investigation by The Hague tribunal.
The aftermath of the war is a key issue both in Croatia’s domestic politics and its external relations.
The European Union made it clear to former Yugoslav republics that they will not be considered for membership until war criminals were brought to justice.
Croatia is expected to join the EU in July 2013.