A WARTIME leader of Croatia's rebel Serbs was convicted by the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal of murder, torture and persecution yesterday and sentenced to 35 years in prison for a brutal ethnic cleansing campaign of non-Serbs in Croatia.
Judges said Milan Martic, 52, was responsible for hundreds of murders from 1991, when Serbs in the Krajina region of southern Croatia rebelled and set up a breakaway mini-state until 1995, when Croatian forces recaptured the area.
Martic was also convicted of ordering two days of indiscriminate cluster bomb shelling of the Croatian capital, Zagreb, in May 1995 that killed at least seven civilians and injured more than 200.
Most of the crimes were "committed against elderly people, persons held in detention and civilians. The special vulnerability of these victims adds to the gravity of the crimes," said presiding Judge Bakone Moloto.
Martic, who made no comment throughout the hearing, stood still and showed no emotion as Moloto read out the verdict and his sentence.
The three-judge UN panel said Martic was deeply involved in a criminal plot with other Serb leaders, including Slobodan Milosevic, Gen Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, to carve out an ethnically pure "greater Serbia" that would include about one-third of Croatia.
"It is clear that Milan Martic endorsed the goal of creating a unified Serb state," Mr Moloto said.
Ivo Sanader, the Croatian prime minister, called Martic a key player in the aggression toward Croatians and said he was "responsible for the deaths of many Croats."
Milorad Pupovac, an influential leader of Croatia's ethnic Serbs, said Martic symbolised the hostility among some Serbs in Croatia in the early 1990s.
"We Serbs in Croatia are also interested in seeing that such a policy is finished and that those who carried it are penalised," he said.
Martic was indicted in July 1995, just two months after ordering the shelling of Zagreb. He eventually turned himself over to the authorities in 2002.
The two-day indiscriminate attack in 1995 - using rockets loaded with cluster bombs - hit buildings including a school, a children's hospital and the Croatian national theatre, Mr Moloto said. Martic admitted to the press that he ordered the shelling to retaliate against Croatian attacks on Serbs and to warn against further attacks.
Describing attacks on Croat villages by Martic's forces, Mr Moloto said that after the initial military push by Serb forces subsided, "acts of killing and violence were committed against the civilian non-Serb population. Houses, churches and property were destroyed and widespread looting was carried out".
In the villages of Hrvatska Dubica and Cerovljani in October 1991, Croats were forced from their homes, beaten and used as human shields by Serbs.
Martic was convicted yesterday of 16 counts but was acquitted of the charge of extermination, as the number of deaths involved did not justify the charge. Judges dropped two other charges, saying they were covered by another charge in the indictment.
• SERBIA will never surrender Kosovo to the breakaway province's ethnic Albanian majority, or trade its territory for EU or NATO membership, Serb leaders said yesterday.
Serbia "will give up neither Kosovo nor its European future", the president, Boris Tadic, said in a statement which rejected "any compensation for lost territory".
"It would be damaging if any country recognised the independence of Kosovo without a proper decision by the Security Council," he added. The statement was softer in tone, but much the same in substance as a vow by the prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica, who on Monday said that the US president, George Bush, had "disgusted" Serbs by promising independence to Kosovo and would not be forgiven.
In a desperate diplomatic effort to head off the loss of 15 per cent of its territory, Serbia now relies heavily on Russia, which has made plain it may veto a UN resolution that Serbia does not support.