VUKOVAR, Croatia (Reuters) - Serbian President Boris Tadic apologised on Thursday for atrocities committed by Serbs in Croatia in the 1990s in a move to foster ethnic reconciliation in the Balkans and boost Serbia’s EU prospects.
Tadic, a reformer who already had voiced his regret for all suffering caused by Serbs during the bloody break-up of communist Yugoslavia, paid a historic visit to Vukovar, a Danube river town devastated by the Serb-led Yugoslav army and militia.
He and his Croatian counterpart, Ivo Josipovic, laid wreaths at Ovcara, a mass grave of more than 200 hospital patients executed after the Yugoslav army and Serb militia captured Vukovar in November 1991, following a brutal three-month siege.
“I am here to pay respect to the victims, to say the words of apology, to show regret and create a possibility for Serbia and Croatia to turn a new page,” a solemn-looking Tadic said after laying a wreath labelled ‘To the innocent victims’.
“Our children must not be burdened by policies of the 1990s. Serbia wants good neighbourly relations and cooperation,” Tadic, the first senior Serbian official to visit Vukovar, said after lighting a candle at the memorial in the town that is emblematic of war suffering for Croats.
Croatia’s state television and radio carried his entire speech.
Serbia cooled relations its Balkan neighbours after its Kosovo province declared independence in 2008 but has tried hard this year to rebuild ties, after applying for EU membership in December 2009.
All the countries of the Western Balkans aspire to join the European Union, which in turn wants to see ethnic rivalries of the 1990s give way to full regional cooperation.
Croatia hopes to conclude its EU entry talks next year and join in 2012 or 2013, while Serbia applied for candidate status last year but has yet to start the talks.
Croatia quit Yugoslavia in 1991 but its ethnic Serbs rebelled against its independence and, helped and armed by Belgrade, captured one-third of the country. Croatia reconquered the territory in 1995.
In another symbolic act, Tadic and Josipovic later on Thursday will lay wreaths at a nearby graveyard where Croatian troops captured and executed a dozen Serb villagers in 1991.
Although only a handful of war veterans and right-wing supporters gathered at a protest rally in Vukovar, many citizens were largely indifferent to the visit.
Almost 20 years after the siege, the once prosperous town remains strewn with rubble. Unemployment is more than 30 percent and relations between local Croats and Serbs remain frosty.
“His apology means little to me because he wasn’t personally responsible for the crime in the first place,” said Vesna Bosanac, who had been a doctor at the hospital in 1991 and saw her patients taken away for execution.
“However, he can lean on the institutions and on those who know exactly what happened here to help us resolve the fate of the missing people,” she told Reuters.
Croatia is still looking for around 1,000 people unaccounted for since the 1991-95 war and almost 400 of them were from Vukovar. Local media said Tadic had handed over all documents taken from Vukovar in 1991 to Croatian authorities.
Reporting by Ivana Sekularac, writing by Zoran Radosavljevic, editing by Michael Roddy