THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) - A U.N. court convicted six Bosnian Croat political and military leaders Wednesday of persecuting, expelling and murdering Muslims during Bosnia's war and said leaders in neighboring Croatia helped hatch and execute their plan to carve out a Croat state in Bosnia.
It was the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal's most unequivocal statement of Zagreb's involvement in Bosnia's 1992-95 conflict and followed the acquittals late last year of two Croat generals accused of atrocities against Serbs, a ruling that reinforced many Croats' view that their country was a victim in the Balkan wars.
A majority of the three-judge panel said the late-Croat President Franjo Tudjman was a key member of a plan to create a Croat ministate in Bosnia with the aim of later uniting it with his country to create a greater Croatia, or leaving it as a separate independent state.
Past rulings by the court have labeled fighting between Muslims and Croats in Bosnia an international armed conflict because of Zagreb's involvement, but Wednesday's ruling explicitly named Tudjman and his former defense minister, Gojko Susak.
"This is the first time the court has been very clear and adamant about the significant role played by Tudjman and Susak," prosecutor Kenneth Scott said. "There's no question in my view that's one of the most historical, remarkable things about the case."
Tudjman died in 1999 and was never indicted by the Hague-based court.
Croatia's liberal prime minister, Zoran Milanovic, said the tribunal judgment "does not correspond with the truth" and expressed hope it would be overturned on appeal.
"Reality is sometimes complicated, but sometimes it is very simple," he said. "Croatia made some mistakes in Bosnia, but it was also a partner and helped a lot."
The court handed down sentences ranging from 10 to 25 years' imprisonment for the six suspects.
The longest sentence was handed down to Jadranko Prlic, former leader of the self-proclaimed Croatian community and later republic of Herceg-Bosna. Also convicted were Bruno Stojic, Slobodan Praljak, Milivoj Petkovic, Valentin Coric and Berislav Pusic, all high-ranking political or military figures.
The trial, which began in April 2006, provided a reminder of the complex ethnic jigsaw that fueled fighting in Bosnia and continues to create frictions in the country even today. While many cases at the 20-year-old tribunal focus on crimes by Serbs, the case that ended Wednesday highlighted vicious crimes by Croats, who are Catholics, targeting Muslims.
The judges ruled that murders, rapes, illegal expulsions and torture of Muslims "were not the random acts of a few unruly soldiers" but part of a plan to permanently remove Muslims from territory claimed by Bosnian Croats, Presiding Judge Jean-Claude Antonetti told a packed courtroom.
Antonetti said the majority ruled that Croatia had overall control over the Bosnian Croat entity and its armed forces and that Croat troops fought alongside Bosnian Croat forces.
According to the 2,629-page ruling by Antonetti and Judges Arpad Prandler of Hungary and Stephan Trechsel of Switzerland, Bosnian Croats and Croat leaders including Tudjman realized that to create the new state, "it was necessary to modify the ethnic composition of the territories" and that triggered the large-scale crimes aimed at driving out Muslims and other non-Croats.
Both Antonetti and Trechsel added partially dissenting opinions to the judgment.
The judges also said that Bosnian Croat forces carried out what is widely viewed as one of the signature acts of cultural vandalism of the entire Bosnian war, the destruction of Mostar's centuries-old bridge over the Neretva River in 1993.
They said that although the bridge was a legitimate military target because Bosnia's army used it, "its destruction constituted disproportionate damage for the Muslim civilian population of Mostar."
The bridge's elegant arch high over the river linking the two sides of Mostar has since been rebuilt.
In Mostar, survivors of Croat-run camps watched the proceedings live on TV.
"There is no penalty for what we have been through. The entire verdict is true," said Izo Alimanovic, who spent 323 days in prison camps. "People were suffering and our lives there every day hanging just on one tiny thread."
The six defendants showed no emotion as Antonetti, who is French, read out their convictions and sentences. Their attorneys are expected to appeal the convictions.
Outlining some of the abuse meted out by Bosnian Croats, Antonetti said girls were raped, men were forced to work near battle lines and one Muslim prisoner was ordered to lick up his own blood so it would not stain Croat territory.
AP writer Jovana Gec in Belgrade, Serbia, Eldar Emric and Amer Cohadzic in Mostar, Bosnia, contributed to this story.
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