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Milosevic Begins His Own Defense In Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal

By Keith B. Richburg

In a spirited four-hour courtroom oration, former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic tried on Thursday to shift the focus from the war crimes charges against him onto his accusers, blaming NATO’s 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia for the deaths of hundreds of civilians and likening it to Nazi attacks in World War II.

Milosevic for the most part ignored the specific charges against him as he made his remarks, phase one of his opening statement before the United Nations war crimes tribunal here. When he did touch on the allegations, he denied guilt, saying he tried to minimize civilian casualties during the Balkans conflicts, didn’t know of concentration camps and felt he was only fighting terrorism.

Milosevic ridiculed a prosecutor’s claims that he was the architect of three ethnic wars spanning the 1990s and that he headed a “criminal enterprise” aimed at driving non-Serbs from large swaths of Balkan territory. “He probably thinks I am superhuman, having these superhuman powers to influence people,” Milosevic said in mocking tones. “He attributes to me these magical, Godlike powers.”

At times angry and indignant, at other times bitter and sarcastic, Milosevic stayed on the offensive throughout, never sounding like he feared the 66-count indictment he faces. Pointing a finger and waving his eyeglasses, he faced the three judges of the panel and confronted them with two lengthy videotapes and dozens of grisly photographs showing demolished buildings and bridges and charred human remains -- the victims, he said, of NATO bombing.

His statement, delivered in his native Serbian, appeared to many listeners to be aimed beyond the courtroom and toward audiences in Serbia and the Serb diaspora. Serbia is Yugoslavia’s dominant republic.

“Creative, yet predictable,” is how one trial-watcher, Mary Adele Greer of the Coalition for International Justice, described Milosevic’s performance. “The (Serb) public is his jury -- he’s obviously appealing to their sentiments, and to get them on his side.” Milosevic, a lawyer, has opted to represent himself.

In parts of the Balkans, people crowded around television sets to watch the statement, which was broadcast live. The government that took over from Milosevic in Yugoslavia condemned his claims. “Milosevic is on trial for what he has done personally. Rather than defending himself, he is trying to hide behind Serbia’s citizens,” said Goran Vesic, a senior official of the ruling Democratic Party, Reuters reported.

In his statement, Milosevic denied his government ever had an “ethnic-cleansing” policy, saying Yugoslavia was a “exemplary country” for racial harmony that was broken apart in the early 1990s because of a Western plot.

He said he’d condemned the shelling of Sarajevo by Serb forces during the 1992-95 war in Bosnia. When he heard of “concentration camps” housing badly malnourished Bosnian Muslim men, he said, he obtained repeated “assurances” that there were only detention centers for prisoners-of-war. “We were all deceived in this regard,” he said.

Regarding the 1999 conflict in Kosovo, Milosevic denied that Serb troops deported ethnic Albanians from the Serbian province. He said the refugees were expelled from their villages by guerrillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) or were fleeing NATO attacks.