Bosnian Serb authorities Wednesday apologized for the first time to relatives of around 8,000 Muslims killed by Serb forces in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, Europe's worst atrocity since World War II.
"The government of Republika Srpska sympathizes with the pain of relatives of the Srebrenica victims and expresses sincere regrets and apologies over the tragedy which has happened to them," a government statement said.
The Bosnian Serb government accepted last month an internal report by a special investigative commission acknowledging that almost 8,000 Muslims were killed in the massacre, in the final stages of Bosnia's 1992-95 war.
The report marked the first time Bosnian Serb authorities have admitted the scale of the massacre after its troops overran the UN-protected enclave.
Serb authorities had previously downplayed the slaughter -- classed as an act of genocide by the UN war crimes tribunal at The Hague -- but the report's toll of up to 8,000 victims is in line with independent estimates.
Muslim men and boys were separated from the women and murdered over several days after Serb forces swept through the eastern region. So far more than 6,000 bodies have been exhumed from mass graves near Srebrenica.
Republika Srpska is the Serb-run entity which along with the Muslim-Croat Federation makes up post-war Bosnia. Srebrenica was a predominantly Muslim town before the war but it is now part of Republika Srpska.
The Bosnian Serb government also said it was committed to bring to justice those responsible for the massacre -- a key demand of the international community and the relatives of the victims.
"The Republika Srpska government is committed and is undertaking decisive steps to bring to justice all those who committed war crimes," the government said.
The UN war crimes tribunal has indicted Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadzic and his military commander, Ratko Mladic, for genocide for their alleged roles in the massacre.
Although the war ended nine years ago the two still remain at large, hiding somewhere in the former Yugoslavia where they are still regarded as heroes by their hardline supporters.
The Republika Srpska is the only territory of the former Yugoslavia that has yet to arrest a single war crimes suspect despite relentless international pressure.
Survivors of the massacre as well as the international community welcomed the apology while continuing to demand action to arrest those responsible.
The Dutch embassy in Sarajevo released a statement on behalf of the EU presidency congratulating the Bosnian Serb authorities for their "courageous work."
But it also called on them to make "fresh efforts ... to bring those responsible for crimes to justice."
Dutch soldiers were charged with protecting Srebrenica at the time of the massacre in July, 1995, but the lightly armed contingent could do nothing to stop the Serb capture of the town.
The head of the association of Srebrenica mothers, Munira Subasic, said the report was an "important step towards justice" but warned it would be meaningless without the arrest of the culprits.
"The apology is very mild," said Subasic, who lost her son, husband and over 20 family members in the massacre.
"It is very important now that the RS government begins to arrest the perpetrators. That would be a true apology for us."