Serb president pays landmark visit to honour wartime massacre victims
Serbian President Boris Tadic visited the Croatian town of Vukovar Thursday, the site of one of the worst massacres of the 1991-1995 war, to pay tribute at a ceremony for victims. It was the first post-war visit to Vukovar by a Serbian head of state.
AFP - Serbian President Boris Tadic visited Thursday the Croatian town of Vukovar, scene of the bloodiest episode of the 1991-1995 war, in an historic act of reconciliation between the one-time foes.
Tadic, who arrived shortly after 10:00 am (0900 GMT), was expected to pay tribute to victims of the conflict at a special ceremony, 20 years on from the start of a three-month siege during which hundreds of people lost their lives.
The visit is the first to Vukovar by a Serbian head of state since the four-year conflict which left some 20,000 people dead.
"This visit will be a really important political event. It is a symbolic visit, but one that means a lot," Croatian President Ivo Josipovic, who will receive Tadic in Vukovar, said on Wednesday.
In Vukovar residents also hailed the visit.
"It is a positive thing, we should move forward but it would be good if he apologised," 68-year-old Petar Hakala, who was expelled from the town by Serb forces in 1991 but returned later, told AFP Thursday.
Vukovar became notorious as the scene of the worst massacre of the conflict when at least 264 people who had sought refuge in the town's hospital, hoping that it would be evacuated in the presence of international observers, were herded by Serb troops to a pig farm and then gunned down.
The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, based in The Hague, has convicted two former Serb officers of the Belgrade-controlled Yugoslav army (JNA) for involvement in the massacre.
Tadic and Josipovic will pay a joint visit to the Ovcara memorial site where the victims were all killed and then buried in a mass grave.
They will also go to the nearby village of Paulin Dvor where 18 Serbs and an ethnic Hungarian were killed by Croatian forces in December 1991.
The presidents will lay wreaths at the two sites.
In Vukovar, Tadic will also meet with families of Croats still reported missing since the war and representatives of the Serb community.
Tadic told a Croat daily recently that his visit to Vukovar was a "message to all people living in southeast Europe that something like this should never happen again."
He stressed he was coming to "pay respect to all innocent victims."
After the Vukovar's fall, during which it was virtually razed, some 22,000 non-Serbs were expelled.
Croatia's proclamation of independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991 sparked a four-year war with rebel Serbs who opposed the move.
During the war, the Belgrade regime gave the rebels political and military backing.
Ties between Croatia and Serbia have gradually improved since the war. The process has notably accelerated under Tadic and Josipovic as both seek European Union membership for their countries and call for reconciliation in the region.
Tadic's visit has not been universally welcomed, with a right-wing party calling on Vukovar citizens to protest by gathering along the road to Ovcara as he and Josipovic pass.
Vesna Bosanac, the wartime director of the Vukovar hospital, acknowledged the significance of Tadic's visit but said the real key to reconciliation would be if those behind the massacre came forward.
"Serbia has denied this crime for a long time and the time has come to face up to it," Bosanac told AFP.
"If someone who has committed the crimes comes to Vukovar to express regret, that would be a real apology."
After the war, Vukovar and its region were placed under United Nations administration and reintegrated into Croatia in 1998.