ZAGREB, Croatia, Jan. 28 (UPI) -- Five men charged with war crimes against ethnic Serb civilians in 1991 went on trial Monday, the first time alleged war criminals have been tried in a Croatian court.
The five defendants, one of whom is a former Croatian army general, pleaded not guilty in a Rijeka court after the indictment was read. There have been nine trial postponements over the last six months.
Dori Hras, Rijeka county deputy district attorney, said the five were accused of "war crimes against the civilian population," state-run Zagreb Radio reported. Army Gen. Mirko Norac, Army Col. Tihomir Oreskovic, Ivica Rozic, Stjepan Grandic, and Milan Canic all face charges.
The men are indicted for "violating the rules of international law. (They) ordered, illegally detained and killed civilians, by which they committed a criminal act against humanity and international law, i.e. war crimes against the civilian population," Zagreb Radio said.
The indictment said the five committed war crimes in "the Oct. 14-25, 1991, period during armed conflicts between the Croatian military and the Serb paramilitary forces in the area of Gospic," in western Croatia.
Oreskovic told the court he would go on a hunger strike because the Croatian Supreme Court rejected his demand for new judges to hear his case.
"This trial is simply a package intended to wrap up and cover the responsibility of those who should have to stand trial instead of myself and the other defendants," Oreskovic said.
Oreskovic did not elaborate on who he thought should face trial rather than him. The trial was scheduled to continue Tuesday.
The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, or ICTY, agreed the trial of the five-man Gospic group should be held in Croatia and not before the United Nations tribunal in the Netherlands, where it is based. The move was seen as a concession to the reformist government of Ivica Racan, Croatia's prime minister.
Scores of war-crime suspects, Serbs, Croats and Muslims, have been detained and tried before the ICTY in the Netherlands for reported crimes during the 1991-95 Balkan wars in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is to stand trail there Feb. 12.
The Zagreb government has been under pressure from war veterans and hate groups who argue that Croats could not have committed war crimes because they waged defensive war against ethnic Serbs. The groups have staged a number of public protests and mass rallies demanding the Racan government stop extraditing Croatians to the war crimes court in the Netherlands.