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Croatia's President Honors Victims Of Croatian War Crimes In Bosnia

WATCH: In the Bosnian village of Ahmici, Croatian President Ivo Josipovic lays a wreath at a monument to Bosnians murdered by Croats during the 1992-95 war. (video by RFE/RL's Balkan Service)

(RFE/RL) -- Croatian President Ivo Josipovic has visited the central Bosnian village of Ahmici and paid tribute to the 116 Muslims massacred there by Croats in 1993.

Josipovic laid a wreath and toured the massacre site accompanied by the leaders of Bosnia's Catholic Church, Archbishop Cardinal Vinko Puljic, and Bosnia's grand mufti, Mustafa Ceric.

When told by one villager that his visit today was appreciated, even though no apology can bring back the dead, Josipovic replied: "Thank you. I truly believe that events like this will never happen again. All peoples here have suffered terribly and deserve a better future."

The tour was the strongest symbol to date of Josipovic's efforts as Croatia's new president to reach out to neighboring Balkan states.

Ahmici Crimes

During the 1990s, Zagreb supported secessionist Bosnian Croat leaders and became directly involved in the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The massacre in Ahmici on April 16, 1993, was the worst war crime committed by the Zagreb-backed Bosnian Croat forces.

The attack on the mixed-community village was carefully planned, with Croatian residents evacuated beforehand. The Croatian forces then struck the village, along with some 20 other nearby sites, with infantry, mortars, and artillery, killing Muslim residents and burning down their homes.

Josipovic is the first Balkan president to formally apologize for his country's crimes.
The effort was widely seen as a warning to Bosnian Muslims to get out of areas that Bosnian Croat leaders claimed.

Bosnian Croat leaders for years denied the massacre, or tried to blame it on Serbian forces. But the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague ruled that the attack was a crime against humanity. One of the organizers, Dario Kordic, the political leader of the Croats in central Bosnia, was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Since becoming president two months ago, Josipovic has sought to mend relations with all Croatia's Balkan neighbors as part of his campaign to fully turn the page on Croatia's wartime legacy.

He campaigned on promises to reduce corruption, fight organized crime, and bring the country into the European Union as quickly as possible.

Neighborly Relations

"There are three audiences for this trip," says Enis Zebic, RFE/RL's Balkan Service correspondent in Zagreb.

"The first one is the Croatian, local audience. [In Bosnia] he apologized for the Croatian participation in the policy, which he said tried to divide Bosnia-Herzegovina in the early '90s," Zebic adds.

"There was never strong support for such a Croatian policy among the general Croatian public, but he estimated that it would be good to go to Bosnia and say, 'Yes, Croatian politics did some bad things there and we know that and we are sorry for that.'"

Zebic says the second audience is in Bosnia itself, with the aim of reducing tensions left over from the 1990s regarding the war, war crimes, and refugees. And the third audience for Josipovic's trip is the EU.

"Croatia wants to be a member of the European Union as soon as possible," Zebic says. "From Brussels' point of view, and from Zagreb's, a stable western Balkans is the best package for Croatia when she enters the EU. Croatia does not want to be the leader in the region, but wants to do its best to stabilize the region."

Accession talks, which began in 2005, have been slowed over the years by the EU's concerns over corruption in Croatia, past difficulties with extraditing key suspected war criminals to the ICTY, and, more recently by a border row with Slovenia. As a result, EU membership talks are still ongoing, long after Croatia joined NATO in 2008.

'Admit Crimes, Respect Victims'

Josipovic was elected in second-round voting to the presidency with a resounding 60 percent majority, thanks in part to his promises to make EU membership his top priority.

But whether the can do it by mending fences with neighbors remains to be seen. The toughest challenge by far is not in Bosnia, but to the east with Serbia.

Zagreb's relations with Belgrade remain deeply clouded by Croatia's own war with Serbia in the early 1990s, by the expulsion of Croatia's ethnic Serbian minority from the Krajina region and, most recently by Zagreb's recognition of Kosovo's independence.

Still, Josipovic's current two day-trip to Bosnia can be seen as a step forward for regional peacemaking. He is the first president since the Balkan wars to visit a neighboring state and formally apologize for his country's past policies.

On April 14, Josipovic delivered an unprecedented apology to the Bosnian parliament in Sarajevo. "The past should not be forgotten but we cannot live in the past," he said. "To be able to overcome it, whoever committed the crime must face justice and punishment. As for the victims, each and every victim has to be shown respect."

During their tour of central Bosnia today, Josipovic and his Bosnian hosts also paid a joint visit to the village of Grabovici, close to Mostar, where Bosnian Muslim troops killed scores of Bosnian Croat civilians in 1993.

Josipovic is to go later today to southern Hungary to meet Serbian President Boris Tadic and Hungarian President Laszlo Solyom in the town of Pecs. He returns to Zagreb on April 16.

RFE/RL's Balkan Service contributed to this report. With agency reports

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