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By Thomas Escritt
THE HAGUE (Reuters) - The United Nations war crimes tribunal sentenced six Bosnian Croat wartime leaders to lengthy prison sentences on Wednesday for the murder, rape and expulsion of Muslims from Bosnia during the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
The top defendant, Jadranko Prlic, was sentenced to 25 years in jail. He had been prime minister of the self-proclaimed Herceg-Bosna state that Croats carved out in central and southern Bosnia during the 1992-95 ethnic conflict.
The five others, including the interior minister and two chiefs of staff, received prison terms of 10 to 20 years.
Judges at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) also said Croatia, which on July 1 will become the second ex-Yugoslav republic to join the European Union, had been involved in the plan to purge the Croat-held territory of Muslims and Serbs.
They said late Croatian President Franjo Tudjman had believed ethnic cleansing was necessary to create a pure state that could be joined up to Croatia.
Reading from a summary of a judgment that ran to more than 2,600 pages, presiding judge Jean-Claude Antonetti said murders, rapes and deportations had been committed by Herceg-Bosna's armed forces.
"The crimes were not the random acts of a few unruly soldiers," he said. "They were the result of a plan ... to permanently remove the Muslim population of Herceg-Bosna."
NOT ENOUGH, SURVIVORS SAY
The six were also held responsible for the destruction of the Ottoman-era Old Bridge at Mostar, whose shelling became a symbol of the ravages of the 1992-1995 Bosnian conflict.
Judges said the bridge, which has since been rebuilt with international aid, including from Croatia, Turkey and the EU, was a legitimate military target. But they said its destruction had caused disproportionate harm to civilians.
At Ahmici, a central Bosnian hamlet that was the site of one of the most notorious massacres in the conflict, Muslim survivors said the sentences were too light.
"This sentence cannot satisfy the victims or the survivors. It comes just as a small relief because it has now been publicly said who is the guilty party," said Huso Ahmic.
His father and mother were killed and set on fire inside their house when Croat forces killed 116 Muslims, mostly women, children and elderly, in Ahmici in April 1993.
Judge Antonetti described abuse and humiliation meted out to detainees in a makeshift concentration camp in the Heliodrom sports hall near Mostar.
"Detainees who did not eat fast enough were made to lie down on the boiling asphalt and roll around without a shirt," he said.
Jailers made one detainee lick up his own blood, saying that no Muslim blood should remain on Croatian soil, Antonetti said.
Under Western pressure, mainly from Washington, Croats and Muslims ended their conflict in February 1994 and joined forces against the separatist Bosnian Serbs.
"Croatia did make mistakes in Bosnia, but it was also its partner and ally," Croatia's Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic told a cabinet session on Wednesday.
"We cannot be indifferent to what the verdicts say but we hope the appeals chamber will accept what we feel is right," he said, without elaborating.
But another Ahmici survivor said relations between Bosnia's ethnic communities had been irreparably damaged.
"What is really sad is that we lived together until recently but confidence between old neighbors has been lost," said Hajrudin Pezer, a pensioner whose mother, father and brother were killed in the massacre.
(Additional reporting by Maja Zuvela in Bosnia; Writing by Zoran Radosavljevic; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)