THE HAGUE, Netherlands -- A commander hailed by Croats as a hero of the Balkan conflict was convicted of war crimes by a U.N. court Friday and sentenced to 24 years in prison for a campaign of shelling, shootings and expulsions aimed at driving Serbs out of a Croatian border region in 1995.
The conviction of Gen. Ante Gotovina was a blow to the Croatian view of its wartime generals as national heroes who reclaimed Croatian land from a more powerful Serb force.
Thousands of Croatian war veterans watched the verdict live on a large video screen at Zagreb's main square, and jeered and booed the ruling, some frozen in disbelief, others crying.
"This is a verdict against the Croatian state," said Branko Borkovic, a former Croatian army commander. "All of us have been convicted, including the Republic of Croatia."
Gotovina was convicted of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, deportation, persecution and inhuman acts, during and immediately after a lightning campaign called Operation Storm that seized back land along Croatia's eastern border taken over by rebel Serbs early in the Balkan wars. Dozens of Serbs were killed and tens of thousands forced to flee their homes.
Croatia's ethnic war was one of a string of conflicts that erupted across the Balkans with the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The most deadly was in Bosnia, where Serbs battled Muslims and Croats in a four-year struggle that claimed some 100,000 lives.
In Croatia, ethnic Serbs backed by Serbia held the Krajina region for years. But as Belgrade's forces were stretched in the closing days of the Bosnian war -- and as former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic turned his back on the Croatian Serb rebels -- Croatian forces seized the opportunity to strike back.
Croatian troops opened Operation Storm with artillery barrages that forced thousands of Serbs to flee their homes. Soldiers and special police then roamed from village to village, killing and abusing villagers -- many of them elderly, according to Friday's judgment.
U.S. officials were believed to have given logistical and political support to President Franjo Tudjman for "Operation Storm," which sealed Croatia's war for independence.
Witnesses said during the trial that one elderly Serb woman was forced to strip to her underwear and play basketball. Presiding Judge Alphons Orie cited one witness who recalled finding his elderly mother and mentally ill brother shot dead after hearing a Croatian soldier say, "I killed another one." Another man was tied to a tree and surrounded with material that was then set ablaze.
The first prosecution witness in the case told judges artillery shells rained down on the city of Knin, hitting apartment blocks and a medical clinic.
"As I ran, shells were falling around me," the witness said. Her identity was not released by the court.
The offensive is still a source of friction between Balkan neighbors Croatia and Serbia. Zagreb celebrates it with a national holiday, while Belgrade regards it as one of the worst crimes against Serbs committed during the Balkan wars.
Gotovina, a charismatic 55-year-old former French Legionaire, became a symbol for what Croatians saw as a war of liberation against neighboring Serbia's expansionist policies.
Posters of him were plastered around the country after he went on the run following his indictment in 2001. He became one of the court's most-wanted fugitives until his arrest while dining in a restaurant on a Spanish island in 2005.
In Zagreb, former Foreign Minister Mate Granic, who testified at the trial, criticized the verdicts as "shameful and not based on evidence." He added that the verdicts attempted to "change history and the historic truth."
Defense lawyer Greg Kehoe said Gotovina would appeal and "will be successful."
"We all are disappointed," he said. "We all believed ... that we would be taking the general home today."
Kehoe said judges "completely ignored everything that was presented by the Gotovina defense."
The Yugoslav war crimes tribunal judgment said President Tudjman led a "joint criminal enterprise" to repopulate the Krajina region with Croats after driving out Serbs. Tudjman died in 1999 while under investigation by the tribunal.
Gotovina's "orders to unlawfully attack civilians ... amounted in and of itself to a significant contribution to the joint criminal enterprise," Orie said. He said the terror spread by Croat shelling "created an environment in which those present there had no choice but to leave."
The court also convicted a second general, Mladen Markac, and sentenced him to 18 years, but cleared a third, Ivan Cermak, of all charges and ordered him released.
Cermak's lawyer Steven Kay said his client was relieved.
"He found himself in a nightmare," Kay said. "Finally this matter has got to the truth."
Gotovina and Markac both stood upright and showed no emotion as they were convicted and sentenced. Cermak looked down at the desk in front of him as Orie pronounced his acquittal of all charges.
The judgment was one of the most significant ever handed down by the U.N. court dealing with crimes against Serbs. Belgrade often accuses the tribunal of anti-Serb bias since the vast majority of suspects convicted are Serbs.
Defense lawyers for Gotovina and Markac unsuccessfully argued during the three-year trial that crimes in the Krajina were committed not by Croatian armed forces and special police, but by Croats exacting revenge on Serbs who forced them from their homes years earlier.
Associated Press correspondent Dusan Stojanovic contributed to this report from Croatia.