A retired Croatian general has pleaded not guilty to seven charges of atrocities committed against ethnic Serbs during a 1995 military offensive in the Balkan wars. Ante Gotovina appeared at the U.N. war crimes tribunal in the Hague less than a week after he was captured in Spain's Canary Islands, putting an end to four years on the run.
Ante Gotovina's appearance in court marks a big victory for tribunal prosecutors. They have been seeking to get their high-profile suspect here for the past four years. His arrest last week by Spanish police at an upscale restaurant in the Canary Islands put an end to his life as a fugitive, which had taken him as far away as Latin America and Africa.
Looking somber in The Hague courtroom, the former French Foreign Legionnaire answered to seven counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity against Serbs, including persecution, murder, deportation and plunder.
Ante Gotovina pleaded not guilty to all the charges against him. Prosecutors say the general was the operational commander during 1995's Operation Storm, the name for Croatia's offensive to re-take the Krajina region that had fallen to Serbs early in the war.
Prosecutors charge that during and after the offensive, General Gotovina was responsible for the murder of at least 150 Serbs, the deportation of tens of thousands, and the destruction and plunder of villages. They say he conspired with former Croatian President Franjo Tudjman to ethnically cleanse the area of Serbs.
Back home in Croatia, General Gotovina is largely seen as a war hero. About 40,000 people rallied in his support Sunday in the Croatian city of Split, many dressed in black and carrying posters hailing him as a hero, not a war criminal.
But for Croatian authorities, the general's arrest on foreign soil comes as a welcome relief. Resolving his case has been a pre-condition for the country's joining the European Union.
With the Hague tribunal's third most wanted suspect now in custody, the tribunal's chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, is pressing for the capture of it top two fugitives, Bosnian Serbs Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, along with four other Serbs. They are the last six suspects sought by the court.
Earlier Monday, NATO troops in Bosnia searched the house of someone they say is part of Mr. Karadzic's support network.