Croatian veterans at war with government

ZAGREB, Jul 7, 2000 -- (AFP) The Croatian government's publication of an inaccurate list of bogus war invalids has led to protests from veterans' associations demanding the resignation of the minister of war veterans.

The scandal broke out after the minister, Ivica Pancic, mistakenly named two people, one of them a general, among the names of 18 bogus invalids from the 1991-95 Serbian-Croatian war.

Last week, at the start of the tourist season, members and supporters of the regional branch of the Association of Croatian war invalids (HVIDRA) blocked a major road near the eastern town of Orahovica for an hour.

"We have no intention of sabotaging the season, but we do intend to organize protests in a few months in Zagreb when the Parliament will discuss the law on the rights of veterans", Darko Bestek, one of the falsely accused invalids told AFP.

Bestek, holder of a 100 percent invalidity pension, sprang to national prominence when he dramatically offered Pancic his artificial leg in front of TV cameras.

Pancic acknowledged a few days later that Bestek was not a fake invalid and that his privileges were only slightly reduced, but refused to apologize.

"This was the last straw that forced war invalids to organize this protest. We will not accept the intentions of this ministry to reduce the rights of veterans and to insult the meaning of the 1991-95 war," Bestek said.

Pancic's ministry also intends to check on the number of war veterans. Although 600,000 are officially registered, Pancic thinks that to be genuine the figure should be cut by half.

"The real question should be why all those gentlemen who unlawfully obtained their privileges using political pressures have not yet apologized to the Croatian people for spending their tax money", Pancic told AFP, stressing that he was referring to high officials within the army and HVIDRA.

"It is now time to tell local chieftains that they cannot steal anymore and that the time has come for them to answer", warned Pancic, renown for his blunt statements.

Hundreds more cases of fake invalids are being processed, he said, but no more names will be made public.

Bestek does not object to the list being checked up, but does not believe that there are feigning invalids, and insists that medical commissions and commanding officers involved in the process act in a responsible manner.

The Croatian press often speculates that hard-liners within the nationalist Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), which lost in a general election earlier this year, are using the growing discontent among war veterans for political purposes.

The same scenario was suspected when veterans protested a few months ago against improved cooperation from the new center-left government with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).

"We are not trying to bring HDZ back to power, but the fact remains that HDZ showed more understanding to us", said Bestek, accusing the war veterans ministry of not providing invalids with the jobs pledged during the elections campaign.

Original article