Croatia's Vukovar commemoration turns anti-government

Croatian war veterans on Monday prevented top officials including Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic from joining a march to commemorate the anniversary of the 1991 fall of Vukovar at the start of the Yugoslav wars.

The observance was held amid growing tensions between Croatians and minority Serbs in the eastern city sparked by the introduction of bilingual signs on public buildings -- written in the Cyrillic alphabet for Serbs alongside the names in the Latin alphabet for Croats.

Veterans opposed to the use of Cyrillic dissuaded the officials, who gathered first at the city's hospital -- a wartime symbol of resistance to Serb aggression -- from joining some 40,000 people in the traditional march through Vukovar.

The officials decided to abandon the observance after some 20 candles had been placed in their way while a few hundred veterans stood nearby, many wearing T-shirts reading, "For a Croatian Vukovar -- No to Cyrillic".

Rebel Serbs who opposed Croatia's bid for independence from Yugoslavia captured Vukovar after a bloody three-month siege, marking the start of 1991-95 war, which claimed around 20,000 lives.

"Unfortunately, this was more or less expected," Milanovic told state television after the officials decided not to insist on joining the march.

Milanovic's centre-left government had repeatedly refused to scrap the introduction of Cyrillic on Vukovar's official signs, noting that respect for minority rights was a key condition for Croatia's EU membership.

The Balkan state became the European Union's newest member on July 1.

War veterans have been smashing the bilingual signs regularly ever since they began appearing in September, clashing with police on several occasions.

During Monday's so-called "Memory Column" through Vukovar from the hospital to a memorial cemetery, people from across the country carried candles and waved Croatian flags.

Rozalija Bartolic, a 55-year-old war widow who travelled from the capital Zagreb for the occasion, told AFP that introducing Cyrillic in Vukovar "is simply unacceptable".

"We all have to stand by Vukovar people" in opposing it, Bartolic said.

The marchers included conservative opposition leaders as well as three former army generals, considered national heroes in Croatia, who were acquitted by the UN war crimes court in the past two years.

"Vukovar is a heroic city, and today we came to pay tribute to it," ex-general Ante Gotovina told state television.

The Vukovar hospital, though heavily shelled throughout the siege, stayed open for hundreds of war wounded while coping with inhuman conditions and lacking medicines, electricity, food and water.

In late November 1991, Serb soldiers bused some 400 wounded Croats and other non-Serbs from the hospital to nearby Ovcara.

Some 260 of them were taken to a secluded pig farm, where they were beaten, killed and buried in mass graves.

After the war the city and surrounding region were under UN administration and the area was finally reintegrated into Croatia in 1998.

The UN war crimes court in The Hague sentenced two Serb officers, Mile Mrksic and Veselin Sljivancanin, for the Ovcara massacre to 20 and 10 years in prison respectively.

More than 400 people from the Vukovar area are still listed as missing.