Croatians rally behind 'national hero' after general is snatched

The protesters, who according to organisers numbered more than 100,000 - local reporters put the number at up to 70,000 - demanded that General Gotovina be provisionally set free and tried in Croatia. Yesterday's rally, organised by veterans of Croatia's war of independence, ended without incident. General Gotovina, 50, was arrested last Wednesday in the Canary Islands after four years on the run and transferred to the international war crimes court on Saturday. The general, who went into hiding in 2001 after war crimes charges against him became public, will enter his plea on a seven-point indictment today. The charges deal with the killing of 150 Serbs by troops under his command and the torching of more than 20,000 Serb homes in an operation code-named "Storm".

The 1995 offensive ended a Serb rebellion and Croatia's war of independence. It also ended centuries of the Croatian Serb minority, more than 200,000 of whom fled from their homes in the aftermath.

But thanks to the operation, General Gotovina is revered as a national hero by the majority of Croatians. Recent opinion polls by the Puls agency show that more than 60 per cent were outraged by the general's arrest and transfer to The Hague.

General Gotovina was arrested at a beachside hotel, the Bitacora in Tenerife, when Spanish police swooped. He was finishing dinner with a friend, Jozo Grgic, when nine Spanish agents came to the table and simply asked: "Ante Gotovina?" "Yes, it's me", he answered, before being handcuffed. "I don't want my son to see me with handcuffs," the fugitive added in Spanish, a plea apparently ignored by his captors, as the pictures have now been broadcast on Croatian television.

Spanish authorities have revealed that the fugitive was travelling on a false passport in the name of Kristijan Horvat - which translates as "Christian Croat" - and had travelled widely during his time on the run. The passport bore stamps of entry to Tahiti, Argentina, Chile, China, Russia, the Czech Republic, Mauritania and Mauritius. When arrested, he had a dozen €500 notes on him. In his hotel room, another forged passport was found, bearing the name Stjepan Senicic. Spanish police are also examining the contents of the general's laptop, found in the room.

For many Croats, the circumstances leading up to the arrest remain a mystery. The Croatian government, which told UN war crimes investigators that he was not in Croatia, has denied reports that it provided the war crimes investigators and Spanish police with his mobile phone number.

According to well-informed sources, months of phone taps of the general's wife, Dunja, and his friend, financier Hrvoje Petrac, arrested last August in Greece, led to the detention. Mr Grgic is said to fear for his life as many in Croatia regard him as a traitor to the national hero.