THE HAGUE (Reuters) - The most senior Croatian military officer convicted of war crimes during the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s was freed after an appeal on Friday and Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic said the "political decision" would open old wounds in the region.
General Ante Gotovina was cleared by an appeals chamber of the U.N. war crimes tribunal after being convicted of targeting hospitals and other civilian institutions during a Croatian army operation to retake its Krajina region from rebel Serbs.
Gotovina, hailed as a hero at home but reviled in neighbouring Serbia, was freed along with Croatian police commander Mladen Markac. The two men are expected to fly home later on Friday.
Their acquittals were greeted with jubilation on the streets of the Croatian capital Zagreb but Serbia reacted with anger and dismay. Nikolic said the U.N. tribunal's decision had destroyed its neutrality.
"It is now quite clear the tribunal has made a political decision and not a legal ruling. Today's ruling will not contribute to the stabilisation of the situation in the region and will open old wounds," Nikolic said in a written statement.
"If we had reasons to believe that the tribunal is neutral, fair and more than a court only for Serbia and its people, these reasons are now anulled with the acquittal of war criminals."
The successful appeal marks the biggest reversal for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia during its near two decades of hearing cases involving the bloody breakup of the southeast European country.
Gotovina was a commander when the Croatian army, aided by U.S. and NATO military advisers, ousted rebel Serb forces from Croatia's Krajina region in Operation Storm in 1995.
Prosecutors had accused Gotovina him of illegally targeting civilian institutions in Krajina towns in a deliberate attempt to spread fear to drive Serbs out of the region.
But appeal judges said civilian institutions had not been targeted on purpose, ruling: "Without a finding that the artillery attacks were unlawful, the Trial Chamber's conclusion that a joint criminal enterprise existed cannot be sustained."
Gotovina, a commander in Croatia's coastal Split district at the time, was jailed for 24 years at the end of his original trial. Markac was sentenced to 18 years.
Crowds in Zagreb erupted with joy at the acquittals, which were broadcast live by several Croatian TV stations, clapping and cheering.
Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic told a news conference Croatia would send a jet to pick up the pair: "I think it is only fair to get the boys back home."
But he said Croatia, which joins the European Union next year, would fulfil its obligation to prosecute crimes from the Yugoslav wars, in which at least 100,000 people died.
"There were mistakes in the war, for which Croatia is responsible and for which it will do its debt to justice."
However, in Belgrade, Serbia's point man for cooperation with the U.N. tribunal reacted angrily to the decision.
"There is no logic. Crimes were indisputably committed during Operation Storm, but so far no one has been sentenced for that," Rasim Ljajic, who heads Serbia's national council for cooperation with the tribunal, told state-owned Tanjug news agency.
The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia has jailed people from all ethnicities since it was created. But most have been Serbs, leading many in Serbia to dismiss it as a "NATO court". (Reporting by Ivana Sekularac and Gilbert Kreijger in Amsterdam, Zoran Radosavljevic in Zagreb, and Aleksandar Vasovic in Belgrade. Writing by Thomas Escritt; Editing by Jon Boyle)