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Defiant Milosevic begins defense in war crimes trial

Wednesday, September 1, 2004

THE HAGUE, Netherlands -- Slobodan Milosevic launched a defiant defense Tuesday of his conduct during the Balkan wars, accusing his enemies of conspiracies against the Serbs and insisting his countrymen acted in self-defense.

The former Yugoslav president sought to shift blame for atrocities and portray the U.N. war crimes tribunal as the tool of a U.S.-supported plot to bring about the violent breakup of Yugoslavia in fighting that left more than 200,000 people dead.

Seated alone at the defense table, Milosevic spoke with his customary swagger and sarcasm. But at times his face reddened as he rushed to complete his statement in the allotted time, leaving translators breathless as they tried to keep up with his rapid Serbian. Judges granted him an additional 90 minutes Wednesday to complete the statement.

"Accusations leveled against me are an unscrupulous lie and also a tireless distortion of history. Everything has been presented in a lopsided manner in order to protect those truly responsible," Milosevic asserted.

It was the first time he was allowed to speak without interruption since his trial began 2 1/2 years ago, and he signaled he would mount a highly political rather than legal defense.

He unleashed a stream of invective against those he held responsible for Serbia's torment: Croatia, which he accused of genocide against its Serb minority; the United States and Europe for seeking Yugoslavia's destruction; and the Vatican, which he said sought the supremacy of Roman Catholicism.

"They call themselves the 'international community,' but in the territory of Yugoslavia -- Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo -- they supported a totalitarian chauvinist elite, terrorists, Islamic fundamentalists, neo-Nazis, whose objective was an ethnically pure state. That is to say, a state without any Serbs," he said.

Milosevic, who was extradited to U.N. authorities in The Hague by Serbia in June 2001, faces 66 counts of war crimes allegedly committed in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo during the 1990s. He could be jailed for life if convicted on any charge.

Prosecutors accuse Milosevic of orchestrating or condoning murder, the destruction of towns and places of worship and the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of people in an effort to create an ethnically pure "greater Serbia" stretching across Yugoslavia's former republics.

Milosevic said allegations he conspired to create a Serbian superstate were a myth "created by Austro-Hungarian propaganda as far back as the latter half of the 19th century."

Presiding Judge Patrick Robinson allowed Milosevic to have his say, but warned him against wasting his limited time. "You have to be careful. It is questionable whether a lot of what you are saying is relevant to the case and certainly it would not be admissible in evidence," the judge said.

Milosevic was to have opened his defense following the conclusion of the prosecution's case in February. But it was postponed five times as doctors warned that stress was raising his blood pressure to dangerous levels.

"He is in a good mood because he has waited for more than three years for this moment," said Zdenko Tomanovic, one of Milosevic's legal aides.

Denying the legitimacy of his judges, Milosevic said the U.N. Security Council acted illegally when it created the Yugoslav tribunal in 1993, calling it another tool of Western powers who were aligned against him.

"The fratricidal war in Yugoslavia was instigated and supported precisely by those who established this court of yours," Milosevic told the panel of three U.N judges hearing his case.

He spent only a few minutes addressing the accusations against him. Instead, he aired his version of the wars and the tortuous history of the Balkans during which he alleged the Serbs were consistently victimized.

Milosevic maintained that in the 1991 war in Croatia he came to the aid of ethnic Serbs who were under threat from an armed rebellion against Yugoslavia.

Later in Bosnia, Muslim fighters came from Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Morocco "to support the first Islamic state in Europe" -- some of them bearing arms that had been supplied by the CIA for the war in Afghanistan, Milosevic maintained.

Tomanovic, the legal aide, said Milosevic awaited responses from Washington and London to requests to call former President Clinton, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and British Prime Minister Tony Blair as witnesses.

He apparently wants to confront them with accusations they were responsible for Serb civilian deaths.

After Milosevic concludes his statement Wednesday, the judges may rule on a prosecution motion to require Milosevic to have a defense attorney. Milosevic has said he would not cooperate with a court-appointed lawyer.

The judges have said they need to balance Milosevic's right to defend himself against the requirements of a speedy trial, which so far has been repeatedly interrupted by Milosevic's illnesses.

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