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Hague War Court Frees Croatian Generals

Two Croatian generals have returned home to a hero's welcome after a UN court overturned their convictions for war crimes during the bloody 1990s breakup of Yugoslavia.

The acquittal of Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia was met with tears of joy in Croatia - and outrage in Serbia.

Within hours, the two men returned home from The Hague and were being cheered by tens of thousands of people waving Croatian flags and singing nationalist songs in Zagreb's main square.

In Serbia, the decision was condemned as politically motivated - critics claiming it will allow Croatia to enter the EU with a clean slate.

"We are happy to be with you tonight, this is our joint victory. The war belongs to history, let's turn to the future all together," Gotovina told the crowd.

Gotovina and Markac, both 57, were last year jailed for 24 and 18 years respectively on nine counts including murder and inhumane acts committed against Serbs.

Judges at the time ruled that they deliberately plotted a systematic campaign of terror and violence aimed at ridding Croatia's Krajina region of its large Serbian population.

The prosecution said 324 Serb civilians and soldiers were killed and "close to 90,000 Serbs were forcibly displaced with the clear intention that they never return".

Serbian president Tomislav Nikolic slammed the ruling as a "scandalous, political decision" and warned it would "open old wounds".

Several high ranking Serbian officials as well as Belgrade's Bosnian Serb wartime allies Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic are still on trial at the court.

But Croatian President Ivo Josipovic said the acquittal was a vindication for Croatia.

"The verdict confirms everything that we believe in Croatia - that generals Gotovina and Markac are innocent and that there was no joint criminal enterprise of the Croatian leadership and the armed forces aimed at persecuting civilians, our citizens of Serb nationality," he said.