Jadranka Kosor, the Croatian prime minister, has hailed two ex-generals jailed by a UN war crimes court for their role in the offensive that ended the 1991-1995 Croatian war on the operation’s anniversary.
“A special greeting I send to all Croatian veterans, all of Croatia’s generals and particularly to generals Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac,” Kosor said in the southern town of Knin at a ceremony marking the anniversary of Operation Storm, broadcast live by national television.
“Without Storm and the commanders that had led it … we would have not been here today, we would have nothing to celebrate and to be proud of,” Kosor said.
Launched on August 4, 1995, Operation Storm was aimed at recapturing part of Croatian territory held by Belgrade-backed rebel Serbs who opposed Croatia’s independence from the former Yugoslavia.
Hundreds of Serb civilians were killed and tens of thousands fled Croatia during and after the operation.
Gotovina and Markac were sentenced in April to prison terms of 24 and 18 years respectively by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY).
They were found guilty of conspiring with the Zagreb wartime leadership to kill or expel ethnic Serbs during and after the operation.
The verdict shocked Croatia, including top officials, where many see the country’s top wartime officers as national heroes.
Croatian President Ivo Josipovic, who has been actively involved in the reconciliation process in the Balkans since he was elected in early 2010, struck a milder tone than Mr Kosor.
He insisted Croatia “does not celebrate Storm because of the war … but because of the peace and freedom ensured by the victory.”
“In its essence, the brilliant military operation should not be put in question because of dishonourable actions of individuals responsible for crimes against our compatriots of Serb nationality,” Josipovic said.
“A crime is a crime and should be punished … One should have a compassion for the victims.”
In Serbia and the Serb-run part of Bosnia, politicians and religious leaders also commemorate Operation Storm every year, paying homage to the victims.
Serbian President Boris Tadic said on the eve of the anniversary that “the citizens of Serbia grieve and pay tribute to the innocent victims” killed during the operation.
Serbs had made up 12 per cent of Croatia’s pre-war population, while according to a 2001 census only four per cent of them still lived in the former Yugoslav republic after the war.