Serbian leader visits site of wartime massacre

Serbian President Boris Tadic yesterday became the first Belgrade official to visit a site where more than 200 Croatians were massacred at the beginning of the war that tore the former Yugoslavia apart.

Mr Tadic's visit to the eastern Croatian town of Vukovar was intended to help the process of moving on. "I am here to extend words of apology, express sorrow and open possibilities for Serbs and Croats to start a new page in their history," Mr Tadic said as he laid a wreath at the graveyard of Ovcara, near Vukovar. That marked the place where Serbs took 300 people from the local hospital and executed them in November 1991. Apart from wounded Croat fighters, the victims included women, the elderly and a prominent local journalist.

Mr Tadic's host, Croatian President Ivo Josipovic, said Ovcara is a place of pain and "victims of senseless politics". Mr Josipovic added: "We came here to pay respect to the victims, express condolences and promise that no perpetrator will remain unpunished."

The two presidents, who are in their early 50s, belong to the new generation of politicians in the region that did not participate in the 1991-95 war and are trying to bring reconciliation between Serbs and Croats for the countries to move forward and put the war behind them.

But as the two leaders laid the wreaths in Ovcara, about 50 members of victims' families turned their back in protest as they visited the site. Some of them carried banners saying: "You're Not Welcome."

At the time, the regime of Slobodan Milosevic presented the fall of Vukovar as a huge victory against the Croats.What happened in Ovcara was only the first in a series of such events that culminated with the execution of about 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica by Bosnian Serbs.

The international war crimes tribunal and a similar court in Serbia have sentenced12 people to a total of 150 years in prison for the execution of Vukovar hospital patients in Ovcara, which was a pig farm at the time. In a symbolic gesture, Mr Tadic arrived to Croatia by crossing the Danube River in a boat named "Golubica", or Dove.