BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) - A Serbian war crimes court on Tuesday sentenced 14 former Serb soldiers to between four and 20 years in prison for the killing of 70 Croatian villagers in 1991, some of whom were forced to walk through a minefield as human shields.
The court ruled that the former regular army and paramilitary soldiers, who fought against Croatia's independence from the former Yugoslavia, were guilty of grave crimes against humanity when they embarked on a killing spree against civilians in the eastern Croatian village of Lovas in October and November that year.
The judges said 22 civilians died after being forced into a mined clover field and that 48 other civilians were killed in their houses and yards in the sleepy and picturesque village.
The convicted men are not widely known in Serbia. They include former paramilitary commander Ljuban Devetak, an ethnic Serb from Croatia, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Survivor Lovro Gersner told the court during the two-year trial that when the Serb fighters took control of the village, they ordered all Croats to wear white hand bands and mark their houses with white ribbons.
He said that one day the Serbs ordered a group of them to walk into a minefield and sweep the grass with their feet. He said that after one of the Croat civilians stepped on a mine that went off, the Serbs positioned around 50 meters (yards) away started shooting indiscriminately, killing and wounding the civilians. One goal was to clear the mine field for the soldiers in a front-line area where fighting was under way.
Gersner said that the 13 injured Croat villagers, including himself, were saved from a certain death by a Yugoslav army major who arrived at the scene and ordered the massacre to stop.
The Lovas killings are considered one of the most brutal events of Croatia's 1991-95 war for independence. The trial at Serbia's war crimes court in Belgrade was a major test for Serbia's judiciary.
Serbia's deputy war crimes prosecutor, Bruno Vekaric, said he was satisfied with the harshness of the sentences "for one of the worst crimes that happened on the territory of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s."
"Today, the Serbian judiciary sent a clear message of respect and apology to the victims, for everything that happened in the region during these unfortunate years," Vekaric said.
Croatia's war erupted in 1991 when the former republic declared independence from the Yugoslav federation, triggering a Serb rebellion which was backed by the Serb-led Yugoslav army.
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