THE HAGUE, Netherlands — U.N. war crimes prosecutors said Monday that Croatian forces shelled civilians and torched their homes in a deliberate effort to expel tens of thousands of Serbs during a lightning 1995 campaign to seize back land occupied early in the Balkan wars.
The ethnic cleansing allegations came as prosecution lawyers at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal summed up their case against Gen. Ante Gotovina, who commanded the blitz known as Operation Storm, and two other Croatian generals.
The case is unusual because prosecutors insist the generals are guilty despite having issued orders to troops not to commit crimes. They say the generals never intended the orders to be followed.
The 1995 offensive is still a source of friction between Croatia and Serbia. Zagreb celebrates it with a national holiday, while Belgrade regards it as one of the worst crimes against Serbs committed during the Balkan wars.
Marking the 15th anniversary of Operation Storm in early August, Serbian President Boris Tadic called it a "crime which shouldn't be forgotten." His Croatian counterpart Ivo Josipovic responded that it was "above all, the crown of the justified liberation war."
Prosecutors claim 324 Serbs were killed, including elderly and disabled villagers – many "executed" with gunshots to the head.
Monday's hearing was being broadcast on Croatian state television but it raised little interest in Serbia. Gotovina, Mladen Markac and Ivan Cermak have pleaded innocent and are regarded as heroes in their homeland.
Prosecutors have demanded sentences of 27 years for Gotovina, 23 years for Markac and 17 years for Cermak. Their trial began in March 2008 and heard from 145 witnesses. Verdicts are expected later this year.
The tribunal has in other cases convicted several senior officers for issuing orders to their men to commit atrocities, or for failing to punish subordinates who violated international law.
In this case, however, the prosecution acknowledges Croatian troops repeatedly were warned against committing crimes, but it claims those orders were never meant to be followed.
"It is clear that Gen. Gotovina expected his orders to prevent looting and burning to fail, and when they did he did not want to know anything about it or do anything about it," said prosecutor Katrina Gustafson.
Prosecutor Alan Tieger told the three-judge panel that it was "patently absurd that there was any genuine intent to implement them." Instead, he said the orders were intended to fool the international community into believing Zagreb was acting to prevent crimes and to distance the Croat government and military from atrocities.
Tieger quoted testimony from former U.S. ambassador to Croatia, Peter Galbraith, who told judges Operation Storm included "serious and systematic crimes for which the Croatian leadership is fully responsible."
Prosecutor Ed Russo said Croatia used a campaign of indiscriminate shelling to spark terror among the Serb population and followed it with "psychological operations" including dropping leaflets advising Serbs how to flee the region. Once the Serbs were gone, Zagreb began an operation to repopulate the region with Croats.
Russo said testimony from survivors showed that Serbs "fled to escape the widespread and unlawful artillery attack on their towns and villages."
Defense lawyers argue that the shelling was aimed at legitimate military targets and that orders for troops not to commit crimes were genuine attempts to prevent attacks on civilians. Gotovina's lawyer Luka Misetic argues that the Serb exodus was planned by Croatian Serb leaders.
Associated Press writers Snjezana Vukic in Zagreb and Dusan Stojanovic and Jovana Gec in Belgrade contributed to this report.