Croatian national hero jailed for war crimes against Serbs

General Ante Gotovina, who became a Croatian national hero for his role in the operation that marked the end of Croatia's war of independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1995, was branded a war criminal yesterday and jailed for 24 years.

Gotovina was convicted of being the commander of a campaign against 200,000 Croatian Serbs in the Krajina region. Hundreds were killed in the shelling of the area, a bombardment so severe that few of those targeted have ever returned.

Alphons Orie, the judge at the International Tribunal for former Yugoslavia in The Hague, said Gotovina, with the late President Franjo Tudjman and other top military leaders, was part of a group that wanted the permanent removal of Serbs from Krajina.

"Mr Gotovina's order to unlawfully attack civilians and civilian objects amounted to significant contribution to the joint criminal enterprise," Judge Orie said. The tribunal found that the aim of Gotovina and others was the settling of Croats in areas abandoned by Serbs, taking their property. Judge Orie said the terror spread by Croat shelling "created an environment in which those present there had no choice but to leave".

Mladen Markac, another senior commander in the campaign known as Operation Storm, received an 18-year sentence. A third defendant, Ivan Cermak, was acquitted. Gotovina and Markac stood emotionless as the sentences were read. But there was outrage at the decisions in Croatia, where Operation Storm is widely viewed as a final, legitimate and unblemished victory over rebelling Croatian Serbs, who were backed by Belgrade and had opposed Croatia's independence.

Thousands watched live footage of the sentencing in Bana Jelacica square in central Zagreb, booing and loudly protesting at the decision. Some cried. Branko Borkovic, a war veteran, said decision was "a sentence against the Croatian state". He accused the court of bending to political pressures. "Gotovina and Markac are the individuals, we [the veterans] are all being sentenced together with them," he said.

Croatian Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor said the court's definition of a "joint criminal enterprise", which defined what many Croatians consider to be the final battle for Croatia's sovereignty, was "unacceptable". Yet she urged her fellow citizens to refrain from any violent expression of anger.

Gotovina was arrested in the Spanish Canary Islands in 2005, after evading justice for years. The arrest helped Croatia's bid to join the EU.