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Croat general guilty of war crimes

A commander hailed by Croats as a hero of the Balkan conflict has been convicted of war crimes by a UN court and sentenced to 24 years in prison.

General Ante Gotovina was found guilty of a campaign of shelling, shootings and expulsions aimed at driving Serbs out of a Croatian border region in 1995.

The conviction was a blow to the Croatian view of its wartime generals as national heroes who reclaimed Croatian land from a more powerful Serb force.

Gotovina was convicted of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, deportation, persecution and inhuman acts, during and immediately after a lightning campaign called Operation Storm that seized back land along Croatia's eastern border taken over by rebel Serbs early in the Balkan wars.

Presiding Judge Alphons Orie in the Hague cited one witness who recalled finding his elderly mother and mentally ill brother shot dead after hearing a Croatian soldier say: "I killed another one."

The offensive is still a source of friction between Balkan neighbours Croatia and Serbia. Zagreb celebrates it with a national holiday, while Belgrade regards it as one of the worst crimes against Serbs committed during the Balkan wars.

In Zagreb, former Foreign Minister Mate Granic, who testified at the trial, criticised the verdicts as "shameful and not based on evidence." He added that the verdicts attempted to "change history and the historic truth."

Defence lawyer Greg Kehoe said Gotovina would appeal.

The Yugoslav war crimes tribunal judgment said Croatia's then-president, Franjo Tudjman, led a "joint criminal enterprise" to repopulate the Krajina region with Croats after driving out Serbs. Tudjman died in 1999 while under investigation by the tribunal.

The court also convicted a second general, Mladen Markac, and sentenced him to 18 years, but cleared a third, Ivan Cermak, of all charges and ordered him released.

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