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The BBC's Dumeethra Luthra
"A drama that has gripped Croatia for the past two weeks"
 real 28k

Thursday, 22 February, 2001, 18:52 GMT
Croatian general rejects war crimes charges
Supporter making Nazi salute
Supporters say Norac is a national hero
An army hero from Croatia's war of independence, General Mirko Norac, has been defending himself in a Croatian court against charges of war crimes.

General Norac
Norac: Thousands joined street protests to back him
He told the Rijeka county court he had no knowledge of the deaths of 40 Serb civilians in the town of Gospic, which the court is investigating.

General Norac vanished two weeks ago, when the court launched its inquiry but he gave himself in to the authorities on Wednesday after the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague said it would not attempt to try him.

Tens of thousands of people who regard him as a hero for fighting for Croatia's independence from Yugoslavia had taken to the streets to demonstrate their support.

"The allegations against me are completely unfounded and will easily be disproved in a court of law," the 33-year-old general said on Croatian television on Wednesday.

General Norac is the highest ranking member of the Croatian armed forces to face war crimes charges.

A deal?

It is not clear if The Hague tribunal reached an agreement with the Croatian authorities to allow General Norac to be tried on his own soil.

Fighting for this country, I also fought for its legal institutions

General Norac
A statement issued from The Hague on Wednesday said: "In view of the fact that no indictment has been issued against Norac... the prosecutor has decided not to seek referral of the case" to the Hague court.

Shortly afterwards, Croatian Prime Minister Ivica Racan told the news to Croatian journalists.

Within hours it was announced that General Norac had turned himself in to police.

In his television appearance, the general maintained he was more than prepared to face domestic courts.

"It was never my intention to hide from the Croatian judicial system. Fighting for this country, I also fought for its legal institutions," he said.

Test for Zagreb

The pro-Norac demonstrations were led by Croatia's war veterans and supported by right-wing opposition leaders.

President Stipe Mesic
Mesic: Intent on prosecuting war crimes
The government accused them of orchestrating the disturbances for political gain.

Croatia, under the late hard-line President, Franjo Tudjman, was unwilling to address the issue of war crimes.

Now the reformist government is trying to change that, but it is unsettling many Croatians in the process.

President Stipe Mesic has accused the nationalist opposition of trying to get back into power by orchestrating protests instead of winning the argument through the ballot box.

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See also:

22 Feb 01 | Europe
Hero or war crimes suspect?
23 Feb 01 | Europe
Analysis: Croatia and war crimes
10 Feb 01 | Latest News
Croatian support for war crimes suspect
12 Feb 01 | Europe
Croatian protesters lift blockade
11 Feb 01 | Media reports
Croatians rally to war crimes suspect
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