After four years on the run, a former general hailed in Croatia as a war hero is appearing before a U.N. judge Monday to answer charges that he oversaw the ethnic cleansing and murder of Serb civilians during the closing months of the Croatian war in 1995. Tens of thousands of Croatians rallied in support of Ante Gotovina in Croatian cities the day before he was transferred to the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal to be asked to plea to seven counts of crimes against humanity.
Gotovina was third on the tribunal's most wanted list, preceded only by Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his top commander Ratko Mladic, who are both accused of genocide.
Gotovina's capture last Wednesday by Spanish police at a restaurant in the Canary Islands was a major success for the tribunal and for the Western diplomats who pressured Croatia to cooperate by rejecting Zagreb's request to begin talks on joining the European Union.
It also squeezed the Serbian government to step up the manhunt for Karadzic, Mladic and four other Serbs. The six fugitives are the last suspects sought by the U.N. court, which has charged 161 people since it was created in 1993 to prosecute individuals committing atrocities during Yugoslavia's disintegration.
Gotovina was extradited to The Hague on Saturday and spent the weekend at the U.N. detention center, a wing of a Dutch prison in the suburb of Scheveningen.
Gotovina was the senior Croatian operational commander during the August 1995 campaign to retake the Serb minority region of Krajina which had fallen to Serb forces in 1991.
His troops avenged a humiliating loss and regained a vital strip of territory for Croatia. But for three months they rampaged through village after village, setting thousands of buildings alight, pillaging houses and killing residents, his indictment said. At least 150 Serbs were murdered and tens of thousands evicted from their homes.
Prosecutors said Gotovina knew what was likely to happen, failed to take steps to prevent atrocities or stop them once they began, and took no action against those who committed the crimes. After his arrest, Gotovina's former war comrades renewed their public and legal battles to clear his name, reports the AP. I.L.