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Top UN court to rule in Croatia, Serbia genocide claims

THE HAGUE, Netherlands – The UN's highest International Court of Justice on Tuesday, February 3, hands down its ruling in a long-running genocide case that could reopen old wounds between former foes Croatia and Serbia.

Zagreb in 1999 dragged Belgrade before the ICJ on genocide charges relating to Croatia's war of independence that raged in 1991-95 following the collapse of the former Yugoslavia.

During hearings last year, Croatia's lawyers said many Serbian political leaders were "in denial" over alleged genocide, an attitude "that persists today."

Belgrade was accused of ethnic cleansing as a "form of genocide" at the time, leading to large numbers of Croats being displaced, killed or tortured and their property being destroyed.

Some 20,000 people died in the conflict, one of several to shake the Balkans in the 1990s.

Zagreb also wants judges to order Belgrade to pay compensation for damage "to persons and properties as well as to the Croatian economy and environment... a sum to be determined by the court."

Belgrade counter-claim

Belgrade responded with a countersuit in 2010, saying some 200,000 ethnic Serbs were forced to flee when Croatia launched a military operation to retake its territory.

Following Zagreb's counter-offensive, called Operation Storm, ethnic Serb numbers in the area dwindled from 12 percent to four percent.

Belgrade was also outraged in 2012 when Operation Storm's Croatian military commander, Ante Gotovina, was acquitted on appeal before the Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).

Serbia added "the irony is that Croatia... which with its forceful separatism, triggered an avalanche of the horrid civil war in the former Yugoslavia, is accusing someone else of genocide."

So far the ICJ, which rules in disputes between states, has recognized only one genocide case since opening its doors in 1946.

Genocide is the most serious of international crimes but also the hardest to prove.

In 2007 it ruled that genocide took place in 1995, at Srebrenica in neighboring Bosnia, when almost 8,000 Muslim men and boys were slaughtered and their bodies dumped in mass graves by Bosnian Serb troops that overran a UN-protected enclave.

Verdict will be accepted

Both Belgrade and Zagreb said it would accept the verdict in the 15-year-old case.

In Zagreb, Justice Minister Orsat Miljenic did not want speculate, but has said before that Croatia's main goal was to "present what happened in the war and that was aggression against Croatia."

"We all know Serbia was leading it all (war) and we believe this (the ICJ) was the place where such things could have been presented.

"Expectations were already met through that."

Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic said the verdict would represent "the end of a historical cycle that lasted for years, decades."

'Old wounds reopened'

Flights between Zagreb and Belgrade resumed in December for the first time since the war broke out in 1991, but experts say a normalization of relations between the former foes could still take some time.

Recent pronouncements by Serbian ultranationalist Vojislav Seselj, who was temporarily released in mid-November by the Yugoslav war crimes court (ICTY) has further heightened tensions between the two neighbors.

Seselj is awaiting a verdict by the ICTY's judges on war crimes and crimes against humanity charges for his role in the 1990s Balkan conflict and has been temporarily freed for cancer treatment ahead of the ruling.

Tuesday's judgement "might open some old wounds, depending on the verdict," said Aaron Matta, senior researcher at the Hague Institute for Global Justice.

If the ruling goes neither way "it could be the best outcome," Matta told Agence France-Presse, adding "nonetheless it shows that there are tensions" between the two countries. –