Tens of thousands of Croatians on Friday jubilantly celebrated the aquittal of their "hero" generals by the UN war crimes court of killing and expelling Serbs during Croatia's 1990s war, while former foe Serbia was appalled by the "scandalous" decision.
On Zagreb's central Ban Jelacic square war veterans and soldiers who fought under generals Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac carried flags of their units and pictures of the two men.
Many at the rally wrapped themselves in national flags and cheered, waving banners saying, "Our knights have returned, thank God!"
Nationalist songs by popular local star Marko Perkovic Thompson, a known supporter of the World War II pro-Nazi Croatian regime, blasted from loudspeakers at the square.
"It was like this only when the Pope came to Croatia," said 52-year-old Boris Balen proudly.
Upon the arrival of the two generals to the square, chants of "Ante, Ante" and "Mladen, Mladen," rose from the euphoric crowd.
"Dear friends ... this is our joint victory," a visibly touched Gotovina told the throng before leaving for the main cathedral for a mass attended by hundreds of faithful.
Croatian archbishop, Cardinal Josip Bozanic, welcomed the two generals, expressing gratitude for their "sacrifice" during the war and their trial before The Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).
But in the Serbian capital Belgrade, the tribunal's decision was met with shock and bitterness as Gotovina is widely blamed for the killing and forced expulsion of tens of thousands of Croatian Serbs in a 1995 offensive.
The acquittal of the Croatian generals was condemned both by the extreme right-wing nationalists and leftist liberals in Serbia who blamed the tribunal for "ignoring the Serb victims".
Prominent human rights activist Natasa Kandic, known for her groundbreaking work in investigating war crimes committed during the 1990s Balkan wars, warned that the "verdict minimises the crimes."
"The verdict does not mention war crimes... it reduces them to isolated incidents," she said.
Gotovina and Markac were indicted for murder and war crimes committed against the Croatian Serb minority, which had rebelled against Zagreb's proclamation of independence in 1991 during the breakup of Yugoslavia.
The Croatian Serbs, backed by the regime in Belgrade, took control of the Krajina region in southwest Croatia. It took "Operation Storm" led by Gotovina in August 1995 for Zagreb to recapture the area.
The UN refugee agency put the number of people who fled the offensive at 250,000 while other UN estimates say some 600 people were killed.
"Those here who believe that The Hague tribunal is anti-Serb, can now say they were right all along," said Verica Nikolic who works for a refugee group.
Zivana Sapic, a 62-year-old refugee from Croatia who had fled during the 1995 offensive, said she was "appalled".
"My husband, a simple farmer, was killed during 'Operation Storm' as we were trying to flee. But now his death will be seen as a death of a criminal or an enemy," she said, visibly shaken.
Serbian human rights activists warned that the acquittals would "hamper attempts of reconciliation" in the volatile Balkans region.
Svjetlan Rogovic, 52, who fled Croatia on the eve of the 1991 war, reflected that view, saying after the court's ruling, "I do not expect I would ever feel welcome in Croatia."
Vuk Jeremic, the UN General Assembly chairman and former Serbian foreign minister, lost his cool on his Twitter account.
"After today there is no reason to formulate my opinion on The Hague justice in politically correct language," Jeremic wrote.
Online Serbian tabloid Telegraf.rs played into public outrage, publishing pictures of the judges who backed the acquittals.
"Remember these faces well, those are the people who mocked the Serb victims," its headline ran.© ANP/AFP