Angry Croat veterans protest mass grave probe

GOSPIC, Apr 20, 2000 -- (Reuters) More than 1,000 angry veterans from Croatia's 1991 independence war marched in the former frontline town of Gospic on Wednesday in protest over a continuing investigation into alleged mass killings of Serb civilians.

The turnout was lower than expected and a number of protesters were bussed in from other towns in Croatia.

Some in civilian clothes, others in military or stark black uniforms, crowd members carried banners reading "Why Gospic?" "Where were you in 1991?" and "Who gives you the right to humiliate us?".

"Everyone has forgotten how it was in 1991, when we were being shelled (by the Serbs)," a veteran from the Adriatic city of Sibenik bitterly complained to journalists.

The protest was sparked by the arrival 10 days ago of a group of experts from the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY), who pitched camp on the outskirts of Gospic and started investigating alleged mass grave sites.

The ICTY is searching for evidence that several dozen Serb civilians were killed by Croatian police and troops in the autumn of 1991, at the outset of the war with rebel Serbs who opposed the country's independence.

"How could Croatians have committed crimes when the town was besieged and took over 5,000 shells a day?" said Anto Djapic, member of parliament and leader of the ultra-right Croatian party of rights.

After working under heavy police guard in a bombed-out suburb of Obradovic Varos, the investigators announced on Tuesday the had found human remains and were continuing the probe, also calling in forensic experts and pathologists.

The protesters demanded that the government order the investigators to leave. They booed War Veterans Minister Ivica Pancic but applauded some rightist and veteran groups' leaders.

They later marched peacefully through the town, passing by the sealed-off site where investigators work, and lit candles at a local graveyard.

The Justice Ministry said on Tuesday it was cooperating with and working in parallel with the ICTY on the ground, reversing the policies of late President Franjo Tudjman, whose government did not allow the ICTY to investigate in Croatia.

Deputy Minister Ranko Marjan told Reuters on Tuesday that if the investigation turned up evidence of crimes, suspects might be tried by Croatian courts, a concession rewarding the new Croatian government's willingness to fully cooperate.

Original article