RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
He is considered a war hero at home, but this week a former general in Croatia went on trial at the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague. Ante Gotovina and two co-defendants are charged with crimes against humanity in the military expulsion of as many as 200,000 Serbs from Croatia in 1995. They've pleaded not guilty.
NPR's Sylvia Poggioli has more.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI: It's considered the single largest event of ethnic cleansing in the Balkan wars of the 1990, a brutal four-day campaign of pillage and murder of a community that had lived in Croatia's Krajina region for centuries. In his opening remarks, prosecutor Alan Tieger said the Serb community was a scarred wasteland of destroyed villages and homes. The indictment accuses the defendants of wanton killing of the elderly, women and invalids.
There is one key defendant who is absent - the late Croatian president, Franjo Tudjman, who was close to being indicted when he died in 1999. The prosecutor did not dispute Croatia's right to retake the land captured by Croatian Serb rebels in 1991. But he said Tudjman's aim was more sinister, to ensure the permanent expulsion of the Serb population.
He quoted the late president as saying we have to inflict such blows that the Serbs will, to all practical purposes, disappear. Tudjman also calls Serbs a cancer on the underbelly of Croatia.
The trial, whose opening session Tuesday was carried live in Croatia, will shed light on the brutal reality of a campaign that Croats had widely seen as a military triumph. The trial could also shed light on the lesser known covert role played by retired American military advisers who Croatians say helped plan the operation and provided battlefield intelligence. They are not accused of any crimes, but some U.S. intelligence methods and sources might come to light.
Gotovina is assisted by a battery of lawyers, both Croatian and American. In his opening remarks, the defense dismissed the charges as a tenuous conspiracy theory, saying Operation Storm had the blessing of much of the international community and specifically the United States of America.
Gotovina's American lawyer, Greg Kehoe, told the court this is a man who never lost sight of what he thought was right or wrong in leading his men in battle. The court was also shown a video interview of a bishop from whom Gotovina sought religious guidance.
Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News.
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