The United Nations’ top court has ruled that Serbia and Croatia did not commit genocide against each other’s people during the 1990s wars sparked by the break-up of the former Yugoslavia.
The ruling could help put to rest lingering animosities between the Balkan neighbours.
The Hague-based International Court of Justice said Serb forces committed widespread crimes in Croatia early in the war, but they did not amount to genocide.
The 17-judge panel then ruled that a 1995 Croat offensive to win back territory from rebel Serbs featured serious crimes, but also did not reach the level of genocide.
Fighting in Croatia from 1991 to 1995 left around 10,000 people dead and forced millions from their homes.
Yesterday’s decision was not unexpected as the UN’s Yugoslav war crimes tribunal, a separate court also based in the Hague, has never charged any Serbs or Croats with genocide in one another’s territory.
Croatia brought the case to the court in 1999, asking judges to order Belgrade to pay compensation. Serbia later filed a counter-claim, alleging genocide by Croat forces during the 1995 “Operation Storm” military campaign.
Rejecting both cases, court president Peter Tomka stressed that many crimes happened during fighting between Serbia and Croatia and urged Belgrade and Zagreb to work together toward a lasting reconciliation.
“The court encourages the parties to continue their co-operation with a view to offering appropriate reparation to the victims of such violations,” Mr Tomka said.
Decisions by the International Court of Justice are final and legally binding.