Monday, July 10, 2006

Former Serb president goes on trial for war crimes in Kosovo

THE HAGUE, July 10 (Reuters) - Former Serbian President Milan Milutinovic, a close ally of late Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, went on trial in The Hague on Monday with five others also accused of war crimes in Kosovo in 1999.

Milutinovic, 63, and his co-accused are charged with the persecution of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, the forcible deportation of about 800,000 civilians and the murder of hundreds of civilians by Serb forces.

"The evidence in this case will show that these six accused ... were co-participants with Slobodan Milosevic and other Serbian political, military and police officials in a joint criminal enterprise," prosecutor Thomas Hannis said in court.

The goal was to alter the ethnic balance in Kosovo, which was largely populated by Kosovo-Albanians, to perpetuate Serb control, he added.

Milutinovic succeeded Milosevic as president of Serbia in 1997. Milosevic died of a heart attack in a U.N. cell in The Hague on March 11, just months before a verdict was expected in his marathon war crimes trial.

Milutinovic and co-accused former Yugoslav Deputy Prime Minister Nikola Sainovic, former army chief and defence minister Dragoljub Ojdanic and army commander Vladimir Lazarevic returned from provisional release to The Hague last week.

The four are indicted with army commander Nebojsa Pavkovic and security chief Sreten Lukic, as well as former chief of public security Vlastimir Dordevic, who is still at large.

Prosecutors allege Milutinovic had at least formal control over the Serb forces who killed hundreds of ethnic Albanians and forced hundreds of thousands from their homes.

Milutinovic has pleaded not guilty to crimes against humanity including murder, deportation and persecution, and one charge of war crimes, arguing he had little real power as Serbian president.


Milutinovic was Milosevic's closest ally and representative during negotiations over Kosovo in early 1999 which ended in an impasse and resulted in the 78-day NATO bombing of Yugoslavia and the eventual withdrawal of Serb forces.

At the time, he conveyed Serbia's tough stand with a smiling face, often shown on TV cracking jokes with journalists who followed him in droves when he took walks through the small French town of Rambouillet during breaks in the talks.

But Milutinovic was believed to be just a mouthpiece of Milosevic, at the time president of rump Yugoslavia.Serbs used a popular saying to describe him, as "a man who doesn't interfere, not even in his job".

Milutinovic stayed in his largely ceremonial post after reformers ousted Milosevic in 2000, protected by presidential immunity. He kept a low profile and stayed out his term until December 2002, before surrendering to The Hague tribunal.

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