By Zoran Radosavljevic
ZAGREB, Sept 28 (Reuters) -
Croatian leaders denounced the U.N. war crimes tribunal on Friday for its "shameful" sentences in a 1991 massacre by Serb-led forces near Vukovar and said they would demand a full discussion at the United Nations.
President Stjepan Mesic said the sentences were "utterly unacceptable" and Prime Minister Ivo Sanader, who went overnight to Vukovar to calm angry residents, said he was "bewildered and disappointed" in a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon."
Vukovar remains the site of the worst war crimes committed in Croatia" and "together with Sarajevo and Srebrenica, ranks as one of the internationally recognised symbols of war and destruction", he wrote.
The U.N. court in The Hague on Thursday sentenced former Yugoslav army officer Mile Mrksic to 20 years in prison for enabling the massacre of194 people taken from a hospital in Vukovar, then besieged by Yugoslav and rebel Serb troops.
A second ex-officer, Veselin Sljivancanin, was sentenced to five years for torture but cleared of more serious charges. A third, MiroslavRadic, was acquitted on all counts.
Prosecutors had wanted life sentences for all three. Sanader's letter to Ban said Croatia would present its views at theU.N. general assembly and before U.N. security council." It is time to reassess all aspects of the tribunal's work," the letter said.The Hague tribunal ruling shocked the Croatian public, which sees Vukovar as a symbol of its suffering and struggle for independence from Serb-dominated Yugoslavia.
A group of 'Vukovar Mothers' staged a sombre protest at Zagreb's main square, lighting candles and carrying large photographs of their husbands and sons killed in Vukovar. The top-selling daily Jutarnji List wrote an editorial under the headline: "22,000 refugees, 3,000 killed, 260 patients executed. Perpetrators free".
The massacre at Vukovar, close to the border with Serbia, is seen asone of the most brutal episodes of the Yugoslav wars. Besieged at the start of the 1991-95 war, the town fell to Yugoslav forces after a relentless three-month siege. At least 264 people, mainly Croats who sought shelter in the local hospital believing they would be evacuated, were taken to a farm building in nearby Ovcara by Serb militias. The captives were beaten for several hours, then transported in groups of 10 to 20 to a site close by, where at least 264 were shot and buried with a bulldozer in a mass grave.
Prosecutors said the victims were largely civilians and sought life sentences for the three officers for effectively allowing the killings to take place. But the judges ruled that Croat fighters were also hiding in the hospital, pretending to be patients or staff. This invalidated charges of crimes against humanity, which apply only to atrocities against civilians, making the sentences lighter.
Serbia is holding a separate trial of 14 former Serb militia members accused of shooting and burying the victims of the massacre. A lower court found them guilty in December 2005, but the Supreme Court ordered a retrial, citing procedural errors.
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