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. Croatia celebrates 10th anniversary of recapturing rebel-held area
OKUCANI, Croatia (AFP) May 01, 2005
Croatia celebrated Sunday the 10th anniversary of a military offensive during which it recaptured an important part of rebel Serb-held area and paved the way for another operation which ended the 1991-95 war a few months later.

On May 1, 1995 Croatia launched a 30-hour-long operation, dubbed Flash, during which it recaptured the western part of its eastern Slavonia region.

Prime Minister Ivo Sanader and President Stipe Mesic laid wreaths in the eastern town of Okucani, where the main ceremony marking the anniversary was held, in memory of 42 Croatian soldiers killed in the operation.

They also attended a memorial service for all those killed during Croatia's 1991-95 war of independence from the former Yugoslavia, a campaign opposed by Belgrade-backed Serb rebels.

The war, during which the rebels occupied almost one-third of Croatia's territory, chasing out the local Croatian and other non-Serb population, claimed some 20,000 lives.

During the Flash operation some 500 square kilometers (200 square miles) of the self-proclaimed "Serb Republic of Krajina" was recaptured.

"This battle actually resolved the war," Mesic told journalists, noting that it led to another operation, Storm, three months later, in August 1995 in which Croatia regained control of the key central area around the rebel stronghold of Knin.

Operation Storm practically ended the war and the Serb-held eastern Slavonia region was put under UN administration and reintegrated into Croatia in 1998.

During and after the war some 280,000 Serbs fled Croatia, most of them taking refuge in neighbouring Bosnia and Serbia-Montenegro, according to United Nations figures. So far only 100,000 of them have returned home.

The commander of the Storm operation, general Ante Gotovina, was charged by the UN tribunal at The Hague for alleged war crimes against ethnic Serbs during and after the offensive.

Gotovina, indicted in mid-2001, still remains on the run.

Meanwhile, ethnic Serbs held their own ceremony to commemorate Serb civilians killed during the operation Flash.

A memorial service was held in a Serb Orthodox church in the Bosnian Serb town of Gradiska, just 10 kilometers (six miles) south of Okucani. After the service several dozen relatives of those killed in the offensive threw flowers from a bridge into the Sava river, marking the border between Bosnia and Croatia.

According to Serb figures, 283 people were either killed or reported missing in the operation.

The Association of Croatian Serbs, based in the Bosnian Serb town of Banja Luka, says that some 15,000 Croatian Serbs fled the western Slavonia region during the operation Flash.

In retaliation for the offensive Serbs staged rocket attacks on the capital Zagreb on May 2 and 3, 1995, killing several civilians and wounding dozens more.

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