Former Croatian Generals Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac have been given lengthy prison terms for their roles in the killing of more than 300 Serbs during the 1991-95 Balkan conflict.
Another former general, Ivan Cermak, was acquitted.
The three men were accused of murder, deportation, and persecution during the 1995 Operation Storm, which Zagreb marks with a national holiday and Belgrade denounces as one of the worst crimes committed against the Serbian people during the Balkan wars.
The operation killed 324 Serbs by "shooting, burning, and/or stabbing," them, according to prosecutors, and drove some 90,000 out of the Krajina region in eastern Croatia.
In reading Gotovina's verdict at the court hearing in The Hague on April 15, Judge Alphons Orie said he considered the "gravity of the offences, particularly the large number of crimes in a wide geographical area, the vulnerability of the victims and the abuse of [the former general's] position of authority" to have been "aggravating circumstances" in the case.
All three generals pleaded not guilty at the start of their three-year trials.
Orie said Gotovina contributed to a criminal enterprise led by Croatia's late President Franjo Tudjman, which aimed at permanently driving Croatian Serbs from their "ancestral homelands" in Krajina.
Croatia Expresses Disbelief
Former Croatian Army General Mladen Markac was sentenced to 18 years at International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
Croatian Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor said the criminal-enterprise allegation was unacceptable for her government.
"My government will, just like it has done so far, continue doing everything in accordance with legal possibilities to annul that [part of the ruling] before the appeals council," she said.
"Our position about the character of the Operation Storm is very clear: it was a legitimate military-police action whose goal was liberation of the territory of the Croatian state from occupation."
Serbian President Boris Tadic cautiously applauded the verdict, saying it could improve relations in the region.
"I can say that The Hague tribunal made the decision according to law," Tadic said. "As the president of Serbia I am avoiding commenting on legal decisions and judiciary. This court is a UN institution and it means it's our common institution. If we get verdicts in proportion to the crimes than we have better circumstances for peace and reconciliation in Southeastern Europe."
Prosecutors had requested a sentence of 23 years in jail for Markac, who was a former commander of the special police of Croatia's Interior Ministry, and 17 years for Cermak, who was the assistant defense minister from 1991 to 1993.
Cermak commanded troops in Knin, the capital of Krajina, who were accused of carrying out "ethnic-cleansing operations."
Gotovina, in particular, is considered a hero in his home country for his role in ending the war in Croatia.'Verdict Against Croatia'
The judgment was shown live in central Zagreb on large screens set up around the city, and an evening mass was held to pray for the generals.
About 1,000 Croatian war veterans marched on the eve of the verdict in support of the three men, and have promised to hold a mass demonstration on April 16.
Thousands of war veterans watched the verdict at the city's main square, booing the ruling and crying in disbelief, news agencies reported.
People in Zagreb react after hearing the tribunal's verdict on April 15.
"This is a verdict against the Croatian state," Branko Borkovic, a former Croatian Army commander, told AP. "All of us have been convicted, including the Republic of Croatia."
The next day, thousands of war veterans protested on Zagreb's main square and in other Croatian cities. Protesters chanted "Treason! Treason!" to accuse the Croatian government of doing nothing to save Gotovina from war-crimes prosecution.
Gotovina went into hiding in 2001 after being indicted by the criminal tribunal, and was finally apprehended in Spain.
The other two accused turned themselves over to authorities in 2004 after they were indicted.
Orie said Gotovina's behavior in detention and in the courtroom was considered in his sentencing. "The chamber further took into consideration factors relating to sentencing practices in the former Yugoslavia," he added.
Before the announcement, Croatian Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor expressed hope for a "just" verdict and that it would be proven in the international court that Croatia "led a just and liberating war."
Defense lawyer Greg Kehoe said Gotovina planned to appeal and "will be successful."
Slobodna Homen, the state secretary of Serbia's Justice Ministry, told RFE/RL that the verdict could actually help improve the sometimes frosty relations between the countries.
"And on the other hand it would mark the end of the unfortunate events in the 1990s because it was demonstrated that all participants in war bear responsibility, that all of them had certain war goals which are not appropriate to the 20th or 21st century," Homen added. "And I think that it will be easier to build relations in the future once you put a full stop on history."
The trial was the first before The Hague tribunal that saw Croats charged with war crimes against Serbs during the war in Croatia. Refugee advocates say the verdict will also pave the way for raising the issue of the constitutional position of the Serbs remaining in Croatia.
"We were witnesses to expulsion, destruction, confiscation of property, and the court merely verified those facts that we have already known," said Milojko Budimir, the head of the Association of Refugees.
"And for these past 15 years we have tried to prove here in Serbia and to the international community that injustice was done against Serbian refugees. I am not talking about property and human rights, but the right to be a constituent people in Croatia is also a question that will be on the agenda now."with RFE/RL's Balkan Service and agency reports