SARAJEVO, April 14 (Reuters) – Croatian President Ivo Josipovic apologised to Bosnia on Wednesday for Zagreb’s wartime role in fuelling bitter ethnic divisions that still plague the country’s Croats, Muslims and Serbs.
His address to the Bosnian parliament was the latest of a series of steps by Croatian and Serbian reformist leaders to heal the wounds of the 1990s wars that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia.
"The policies of the 90s… which believed the division of Bosnia-Herzegovina was the only solution for the country, have sown the seeds of misfortune both in Bosnia and in our own countries," he told Bosnian politicians.
Josipovic, the first Croatian leader publicly to condemn Zagreb’s war role in Bosnia, spoke during his maiden official visit to the neighbouring Balkan country, where 100,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in the 1992-95 war.
"I deeply regret the fact that the Republic of Croatia also contributed to this calamity and to divisions that still torment us," he said.
Last month, the Serbian parliament passed a resolution condemning the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims by Bosnian Serb soldiers and police, but stopped short of an outright apology and did not use the term genocide.
Bosnian Muslim leaders said the gesture was insufficient.
During the 1993-94 Croat-Muslim conflict in Bosnia — a brief but bloody sideshow to the main war with the Bosnian Serbs — Zagreb backed, financed and armed hardline kin in Bosnia, who wanted to ethnically cleanse their territory and join Croatia.
The episode strained Bosnia’s ties with Croatia until reformers came to power in Zagreb in 2000. Relations have since improved but remain relatively cool.
In an effort to close one of the most notorious chapters of the Balkan wars, Josipovic will visit on Thursday the site of a 1993 Croat massacre of Muslim villagers in central Bosnia.
Bosnian Croat (HVO) troops killed 116 Bosnian Muslims, including women and children, in a dawn raid on the small hamlet of Ahmici in the central Lasva river valley on April 16, 1993. The troops then burned all of the houses and two mosques.
The United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague has sentenced one HVO general, a Bosnian Croat political leader and several HVO soldiers to prison for the Ahmici atrocity.
Accompanied by Bosnian Muslim and Roman Catholic religious leaders, Josipovic will also visit the nearby village of Krizancevo Selo, where Muslim troops killed scores of Bosnian Croat civilians in December 1993.
He said the time had come for the neighbours to forgive one another and focus on their European Union membership drive.
The spiritual leader of Bosnia’s Muslim majority, Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric, said he was happy to participate in the joint commemoration with Cardinal Vinko Puljic, the country’s leading Roman Catholic prelate.
Asked whether he thought the Croatian president was sincere in apologising for the wartime massacre, Ceric told Reuters in an interview: "He is sincere of course, and I am very happy.
"This is going to be a good message and I think President Jospovic deserves credit for this."
Croatia hopes to complete EU membership talks this year and join the block in 2012. None of the other Balkan countries has opened accession talks yet, and Bosnia is lagging because ethnic and political divisions continue to prevent any major reforms.
"A new era has come, which requires new politics," Josipovic said. "Instead of old conflicts and confrontations, Croatia is ready to provide wholehearthed support and assistance to Bosnia on its way towards the European Union and NATO." (Editing by Zoran Radosavljevic and Paul Taylor)