ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) — Croatia's former interior minister was arrested Wednesday over accusations that he ordered mass killings of anti-communists soon after the end of World War II, police said.
Josip Boljkovac, 89, and two other former ranking Croatian officials have been under investigation for the alleged murders in 1945 and 1946 of soldiers and sympathizers of Croatia's Ustasha Nazi puppet regime that ruled during the war.
Boljkovac, who fought as a member of the Yugoslav communist guerrillas against the occupying German and Italian troops, was a senior officer of the secret service which is accused of going on a revenge shooting spree of the anti-communists after the war ended.
Boljkovac is accused of command responsibility in the killing of thousands, including civilians, who were buried in unmarked graves throughout Croatia, his lawyer Anto Nobilo said.
A U.S.-based Jewish rights group expressed "alarm and shock" at the arrest of Boljkovac. Tens of thousands of Jews, Serbs and Gypsies, or Roma people, perished in the Ustasha-run concentration camps in Croatia during the war.
"In view of Croatia's consistent failure to prosecute criminals of the Nazi-allied Ustasha regime in its midst, its action against a fighter who opposed the evil Ustasha forces is hypocritical and unacceptable," said Elan Steinberg, vice president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants.
"The cruelties of the Ustasha were so brutal that even elements within the Nazi hierarchy expressed shock," his statement to The Associated Press said. "Shame on Croatia for not seriously addressing these crimes."
Nobilo, the lawyer, said Boljkovac denies having played any role in the killings.
"The charges are shameless," Nobilo said. "He cannot be charged with command responsibility because he did not have command over those units."
Boljkovac was Croatia's first interior minister in the early 1990s when the country declared independence from the former Yugoslavia. In 1994, he broke with late Croatian President Franjo Tudjman and his ruling center-right party.
Croatia's former President Stjepan Mesic said the news of the arrest of "the proven anti-fascist" has shocked him.
He told state HINA news agency that now that Croatia is on the threshold of entering the European Union in 2013, it must avoid charging people "who are not to the liking" of the current conservative government.
Police said Boljkovac was arrested early Wednesday at his house near Karlovac in central Croatia.
Associated Press writer Dusan Stojanovic contributed.