Thousands Welcome Commander of Srebrenica

The Associated Press
Saturday, July 1, 2006; 5:43 PM

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- Cheering crowds on Saturday welcomed home the Muslim commander set free by the U.N. war crimes tribunal after his conviction for failing to prevent murder and torture of Serb captives.

Naser Oric, 39, was released by the tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, on Friday after a three-year trial. Judges found him guilty of failing to prevent murder and torture of Serb captives, but gave him a lenient two-year sentence and ordered his immediate release, taking into account his time in custody.

Oric had commanded troops defending the Bosnian Muslim enclave of Srebrenica, where a 1995 Serb assault ended with the massacre of as many as 8,000 men and boys in a week.

Several thousand people gathered at Sarajevo's airport to greet Oric; most were survivors of Europe's worst civilian massacre since the Holocaust.

The crowds of supporters carried pictures of Oric and banners saying: "Welcome back, legend" and "The Bosnian army is not criminal."

In Belgrade, Serbian officials expressed outrage over the two-year sentence.

"The verdict brings into question the credibility of the (Hague) court," said Aleksandar Simic, an adviser to Serbia's prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica.

Bosnian Serbs claimed the 1995 massacre was an act of revenge by uncontrolled troops because Oric's troops killed thousands of Serbs in the villages surrounding Srebrenica.

The tribunal acquitted Oric of direct involvement in the murder of Serb prisoners, but found he had closed his eyes to their mistreatment and failed to punish their killers. It acquitted him of charges related to the wanton destruction of Serb villages.

The jubilant crowds formed a convoy of cars to escort Oric to the northern city of Tuzla, where he lived since the end of the war.

Many wore T-shirts with Oric's picture and the words: "Never forget Naser. He is a hero."

"This is our birthday," said Safet Omerovic, who served under Oric. "All these years we have been listening to accusations that the Muslims in Srebrenica are almost as guilty for the war there as the Serbs. Now it's official: we defended ourselves, they committed genocide."

One of the Serb commanders found responsible for the massacre, Radoslav Krstic, has already been sentenced to 40 years after a conviction on genocide charges. The commander of the Bosnian Serb Army, Gen. Ratko Mladic _ also charged with genocide for the Srebrenica killings _ is in hiding and believed to be in neighboring Serbia.

© 2006 The Associated Press