Chanting "Victory! Victory!," waving red-and-white checkered flags and dancing in the streets, tens of thousands of jubilant supporters gave two Croatian generals a hero's welcome Friday after a U.N. war crimes tribunal overturned their convictions for murdering and expelling Serb civilians during a 1995 military blitz.
Croatians viewed the decision to release Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac as vindication that they were the victims in the Balkan wars in the 1990s, but neighboring Serbia denounced the ruling as a scandalous injustice toward tens of thousands of its compatriots who were expelled from Croatia after an offensive led by the two.
The deep division over the generals could set back efforts to reconcile the two wartime enemies — the most bitter rivals in the Balkans.
A red carpet was laid out as a Croatian government plane carrying Gotovina and Markac from the Hague, Netherlands, touched down in Zagreb, Croatia's capital, and the two were welcomed by Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic and other top officials.
"This is our joint victory," Gotovina told a cheering crowd singing patriotic songs at Zagreb's main Bana Jelacica square. "We have won, the war is over and let's turn to the future."
The generals later attended a packed Mass held in Zagreb's large gothic cathedral "to thank God" for their release.
The 3-2 majority decision in the U.N. court's five-judge appeals chamber is one of the most significant reversals in the court's 18-year history. It overturns a verdict that dealt a blow to Croatia's self-image as a victim of atrocities, rather than a perpetrator, during the war.
Yet the ruling produced fury in Serbia, where it was seen as further evidence of anti-Serb bias at the U.N. tribunal. Even liberal Serbs warned the ruling created a sense of injustice and could stir nationalist sentiments.
Serbia's nationalist President Tomislav Nikolic declared that the "scandalous" decision by the Hague court was clearly "political and not legal" and "will not contribute to stabilization of the situation in the region but will reopen all wounds."
Tens of thousands of people, including Croatian war veterans, celebrated in Zagreb's main square. Some sobbed with joy while others ignited flares, sipping beer and drinking wine from bottles.
"Finally, we can say to our children that we are not war criminals," said veteran Djuro Vec. "We fought for justice, and that our fight was righteous and just."
In The Hague, neither Gotovina nor Markac showed any emotion as Presiding Judge Theodor Meron told them they were free, but their supporters in the court's public gallery cheered and clapped.
Gotovina and Markac had been sentenced to 24 and 18 years respectively in 2011 for crimes, including the murder and the deportation of Serbs, during the 1995 Croatian offensive dubbed "Operation Storm." Judges ruled that both men were part of a criminal conspiracy led by former Croat President Franjo Tudjman to expel Serbs.
The fighting in Croatia was part of the wars that erupted across the Balkans with the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The most deadly was in Bosnia, where Serbs battled Muslims and Croats in a four-year struggle that claimed some 100,000 lives.