Croatian, Italian leaders honour WWII victims

Italian President Giorgio Napolitano and his Croatian counterpart Ivo Josipovic on Saturday honoured their nationals who were killed or displaced during and after World War II in the former Yugoslavia.

"In the name of our peoples and the future of all of us and our children we bow to the victims" killed both by the Italian fascist regime and after its fall in retaliation by communist partisans, Napolitano and Josipovic said in a joint statement.

"This is an occasion to remember the tragedy of the victims of Italian fascism ... This is also a moment to remember Italian victims of the revenge of the post-war former Yugoslavia's authorities."

"By forgiving each other for atrocities that were commited we focus towards a future that ... we want and can build in Europe," they said.

The statement was read by both heads of state in the Roman amphitheater of the northern Adriatic town of Pula where they attended a special concert, broadcast live on national television.

Napolitano met representatives of the tiny Italian minority, Italians who left the former Yugoslavia after WWII and anti-fascists' associations earlier on Saturday in Pula.

Croatia's Adriatic coast and the northwestern Istria peninsula were held by Italy's fascist regime during a period in which the non-Italian population was exposed to widespread terror before being liberated by partisan forces.

After the downfall of the fascist regime there were massacres of ethnic Italians and fascist collaborators during which many hundreds of bodies were dumped into natural caves and pits in Istria and Slovenia.

Some 190,000 ethnic Italians, so-called optants or esuli, who lived mostly in Istria and the northern port of Rijeka, opted for Italian citizenship and moved to Italy after WWII when the region became part of communist Yugoslavia.

Josipovic and Napolitano also stressed that as Croatia is set to join the European Union in mid-2013, "Italian and Croatian people face a joint future based on democracy in a united Europe."

Ethnic Italians, who make up less than half a percent of Croatia's population of 4.4 million, live mainly in Istria and enjoy a considerable degree of cultural, linguistic and educational autonomy.