After the war crimes and genocide, old Balkan foes make up

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The Independent Online

The presidents of Croatia and Serbia and Montenegro exchanged apologies yesterday for "all evils" by their countries in the 1991-95 war that tore apart the former Yugoslavia.

Stipe Mesic is the first president of Croatia to visit Belgrade since Zagreb proclaimed its independence from the Yugoslav federation in 1991, triggering the war that lasted for four years and killed 20,000 people.

Svetozar Marovic, the President of Serbia and Montenegro, said: "I want to apologise for all the evils any citizen of Serbia and Montenegro has committed against any Croatian citizen."

Mr Mesic accepted what he called a "symbolic apology" and used similar words in his response. "In my name, I also apologise to all those who have suffered pain and damage at any time from citizens of Croatia who abused or acted against the law," he said.

About 2,700 people are still missing from the war in Croatia. More than 200,000 Croatian Serbs are still waiting for an improvement in bilateral relations that would allow them to return to their homes. Those people fled Croatia in 1995 after the regime of the former president Franjo Tudjman overran the self-proclaimed Serb republic of Krajina, which was politically and militarily backed by the regime of Slobodan Milosevic.

Mr Tudjman died in December 1999 and Mr Milosevic, who fell from power in 2000, is on trial at The Hague on charges of war crimes and genocide in former Yugoslavia.Their heirs promised to work towards democracy and reconciliation to rid their countries of the burdens of the past and both Croatia and Serbia and Montenegro want to join the European Union.

Mr Mesic said yesterday: "A united Europe is our common destiny. In order to join, we must help each other ... and be recognised as democratic, progressive societies."

So far, this restoration of friendly relations between the two countries has led to the abolition of the requirement for visas, which was introduced during the war on both sides, and telephone services are functioning normally again. The first commercial flight from Croatia to Serbia for 12 years landed at Belgrade airport on Tuesday.

The exchange of apologies between Belgrade and Zagreb was long-awaited by ordinary people, but some did not think it went far enough. "You are inviting us to a table without any lunch on it," one Serb refugee said in a letter to Mr Mesic.

Mr Mesic conceded that solutions still needed to be found for many issues. "There are undoubtedly questions that remain open, which have not been solved," he said. One of the issues is a lawsuit that Croatia has brought to the International Court of Justice demanding billions of dollars from Belgrade for allegedly fomenting the 1991 rebellion by ethnic Serbs in Croatia.