VUKOVAR, Croatia — Serbian President Boris Tadic apologized Thursday at the site of the bloody massacre of more than 200 Croats, offering the strongest condemnation yet by a Serbian leader of Serb wartime atrocities.
Laying a wreath at Ovcara, a former pig farm where a mass grave remains a painful symbol for Croats of Serb brutality during the 1991 ethnic war, Tadic said he came to “bow down before the victims” and “once again offer words of apology and express regret.”
Though relations between the two neighbours have vastly improved, the visit offers a symbolic step of reconciliation after years of mutual accusations over atrocities. Tadic is the first Serb leader to visit the site, one of the worst massacres of the Balkan conflicts that followed the post-communism breakup of Yugoslavia.
Accompanied by his Croatian counterpart, Ivo Josipovic, Tadic said the two of them visited the site near the eastern Croatian town of Vukovar “to create the possibility that Croats and Serbs can turn a new page of history.”
More than 200 Croats were executed at Ovcara after Serb soldiers dragged them out of a local hospital.
“By acknowledging the crime, by apologizing and regretting, we are opening the way for forgiveness and reconciliation,” Tadic said.
Vukovar was levelled by Serb bombardment in Nov. 1991, after a three-month siege, leaving hundreds dead and forcing even more to flee their homes.
Some in Croatia oppose Tadic’s visit, saying he should have first admitted that Serbs were aggressors in the war. Several members of the small Croatian Party of Rights gathered in Vukovar carrying banners saying: “Apology, Not Regret” and “You’re Not Welcome.”
Several mothers of those killed in Vukovar came to Ovcara and turned their backs on Tadic as he spoke.
The two presidents will also lay wreaths for 18 Serbs killed by Croats in a nearby village.
Serbia backed Croatian Serbs when they rebelled against the country’s independence from Yugoslavia, which triggered the war. The rebels seized a third of the country, and more than 10,000 people were killed and entire communities expelled.
Four years later, Zagreb took back the territory in a blitz offensive, followed by a period of killings and purges of Serbs by Croatians.
The two neighbours have since largely patched up relations, but tensions persist and each nation still sees itself as the chief victim of the war. They have sued each other for genocide before The Hague-based World Court and nearly 2,400 people remain missing.
Josipovic and Tadic, who belong to a younger generation of politicians not involved in the war, have each made steps to reconcile.
Josipovic declared Croat wartime killings “a shame that cannot be washed out.” Tadic had earlier regretted Serb atrocities.
Nikola Tarle, a Croatian war veteran, told The Associated Press Television that he wants “to remember certain things, but we can’t live in the past. We have to look into the future.”
Serbia has sentenced 13 Serbs to prison terms for the Ovcara killings. Croatia convicted one of its soldiers for slaying 18 Serb civilians in Paulin Dvor in Dec. 1991.
Tadic’s visit comes at what would be the 50th birthday of Sinisa Glavasevic, a local reporter who was slain at Ovcara.