BELGRADE, Serbia — Serbia asked U.N. war crimes prosecutors on Monday to hand over evidence against two Croatian generals whose convictions have been overturned, reigniting tensions between the Balkan wartime rival states.
Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac were released this month by a U.N. war crimes court in The Hague, Netherlands, after it overturned their convictions for involvement in violence that drove thousands of Serbs from their homes and left hundreds dead during a 1995 Croatian military offensive known as Operation Storm.
In an unusual step, the Hague tribunal's chief prosecutor, Serge Brammertz, said at the time that his office was disappointed by the 3-2 ruling by the appeals judges.
On Monday, Serbia's war crimes prosecutors said they have asked U.N. prosecutors to hand over the evidence used during the trial of the two generals so they can consider whether to indict them in Serbia.
Gotovina and Markac are considered heroes in Croatia for their role in the 1991-95 war for independence from Serb-led Yugoslavia. Serbia has said it has opened its own investigation of war crimes committed during the offensive.
Croatian officials say they also will investigate the events, but not the two generals, who received state honors and a hero's welcome after being freed from detention.
Brammertz said recently that "evidence collected by my office will remain available to judicial authorities in the former Yugoslavia to facilitate national prosecutions for the crimes committed in connection with Operation Storm."
But legal experts say a retrial in Serbia or The Hague would only be possible if prosecutors find some dramatic new war crimes evidence against the two generals.
The U.N. judgment sparked fury in Serbia, where many see the tribunal as biased against them because the majority of the war criminals it has convicted have been Serbs.
Croatians viewed the acquittals of Gotovina and Markac as support for their claim that their nation was a victim in the Balkan wars.
Croatian President Ivo Josipovic said Serbia should not take out its anger at the U.N. court ruling on Croatia.
"The fact is that it is not Croatia that freed the generals, but that the highest legal authorities in The Hague decided that our generals are not guilty," Josipovic told Croatian state HRT television. "It's a matter of respect toward the international community and international law."
However, Serbian nationalist President Tomislav Nikolic reiterated that the judgment does not help reconciliation and jeopardizes his dialogue with Josipovic.
"It's not going well with Croatia," Nikolic told Belgrade daily Kurir. "He wants us to talk – me as the president of a nation which has committed crimes, and him as the president of a nation which has not been convicted of anything."
"Croatians know that the crime committed during the Storm is awful, but they still celebrate because no one was convicted," Nikolic said. "They are a nation on a wrong path."
Despite the Serb anger, more than 6,000 Croats have joined a Facebook page in support of Gotovina – a former French Foreign Legion soldier – becoming the next Croatian president. The 57-year-old general has said he has no intention of pursuing a political career.
Mike Corder contributed from the Netherlands.