ZAGREB: Croatian police charged five men with hate crimes on Wednesday (Aug 28) for last week’s attack on Serbs watching a Red Star Belgrade match in a bar, an incident that heightened tensions between Belgrade and Zagreb.
The five were charged for “hate-motivated violent behaviour, demolishing others’ property and physically harming” victims,” said the local prosecutor’s office, state-run HINA agency reported.
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If convicted, the five men charged could face up to five years in prison.
Masked men injured five people on Aug 21 when they stormed a Serb-owned bar in a village outside Knin.
Local police chief Ivica Kostanic told reporters the suspects had insulted the bar owner and his customers based on their ethnic identity as Serbs. Police had arrested eight people Wednesday.
“Then they attacked guests with batons, injuring five, including a minor,” he added.
The suspects belong to a football fan group in southern Split, said Kostanic.
One of those charged is currently at large, while police are still looking for 10 other unidentified assailants, Kostanic added.
Last week’s attack inflamed lingering hostility between Belgrade and Zagreb, who still carry grievances from the 1991-1995 independence war that separated Croatia from the rest of then-Yugoslavia.
The animosity often spills into the sporting scene, with both countries’ football clubs notorious for their ultra-nationalist hooligans.
According to the Serb owner of the bar in Uzdolje, the attackers screamed “Damn you, you are watching Red Star!” before wrecking the establishment with bats.
“It happened just because I am a Serb,” said the owner Boris Petko, who suffered head and leg injuries in the assault.
Croatia’s Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic condemned the bar attacks last week, while insisting they were isolated acts.
But angry members of Croatia’s Serb minority say they are having to deal with a rise in hate speech and violence against their community, listing 12 incidents since the start of 2019.
In recent days, hardcore football fans of Red Star and its old Zagreb rival Dinamo have further fanned the flames with provocative stunts outside their stadiums.
The tit-for-tat actions started Monday when Red Star fans installed an old army tank outside the stands of their Belgrade arena, saying it was meant to represent the “machine” of the club.
That triggered outrage in Croatia, where it was interpreted as a symbol of the Serb assault on the city of Vukovar at the start of the war, even if the Red Star fans denied that intent.
The next day, Croatia’s football league posted a photo on Facebook of a tractor parked outside Dinamo’s stadium with the text: “Dinamo replied to a club in the east…”
In Serbia, that was seen as a mockery of the more than 200,000 Serb refugees who fled Croatia at the end of the war, most of them travelling by tractor.
Commenting on the events in an editorial for a local outlet, Croatian historian Dragan Markovina deplored the impossibility of building “a normal civilian life and abandoning the rhetoric of war” in the Balkans.
Accusing politicians of keeping the grievances alive, he added: “As long as people are obsessed with nationalism and war, you can pass any laws you want, destroy industry, claim public areas.”
Red Star and Dinamo could potentially face each other in the group stage of the Champions League after both advanced in their play-offs Tuesday night.