A cast of Europe's titans in Hague drama

Slobodan Milosevic is due to begin responding to prosecution charges today.

As the first major war-crimes trial of the 21st century unfolds here, three of the key actors serve as archetypes of modern European life, symbolizing the forces that forged a continent still seeking to purge itself of the savagery that marked its 20th-century history.

In the dock, Slobodan Milosevic, a former Eastern European Communist Party apparatchik hungering for power, brought down eventually by the tide of history that swept away one-party rule across the region.

Across the courtroom, Carla del Ponte, a Swiss woman who worked her way through continental Europe's post-war meritocracy to the highest-profile job in international justice.

Presiding over the trial, Richard May, the privileged product of an elite English educational system that was accustomed, in earlier days of empire, to sending its sons out to dispense justice around the globe.

They have been drawn together from these widely varied backgrounds to an antiseptic, state-of-the-art courtroom, decorated in United Nations sky blue, that is a world away from the bloody killing fields of Bosnia, Kosovo, and Croatia, which are actually only two days' drive south from here.

Yesterday, all eyes were on the stocky, pugnacious Mr. Milosevic, as he spoke for the first time, challenging the court's legitimacy and the way in which he was handed over to the tribunal by the Serbian authorities. "I challenge the very legality of this tribunal because it was not set up on the basis of law," he told Judge May, questioning the authority of the United Nations Security Council to establish the court.

He also demanded that May respond to questions he had raised at earlier procedural hearings about the alleged illegality of his arrest in Serbia, and complained that the prosecution had already "pronounced my judgment and sentence."

May interrupted him curtly, to say that "the matters on which you are choosing to address us are matters on which we have already ruled, as you would know if you had taken the trouble to read the documents you have been given."

In line with his refusal to acknowledge the court, Milosevic is not thought to have consulted any of the court's rulings, given to him in his prison cell.

Twenty years ago, the dingy corridors of state socialist power in eastern Europe were full of men like Milosevic.

Born in 1941, during the hardships of World War II in poverty- stricken eastern Serbia, Milosevic was only 18 years old when he chose the sole route to power in Tito's Yugoslavia, and joined the Communist Party. His ambition, however, set him apart as he climbed the ranks to become the republic of Serbia's party boss.

It was that ambition, say prosecutors in Milosevic's trial here for genocide, crimes against humanity, and other war crimes, that drove him to lead his country into catastrophic wars with the neighboring republics that had made up the federal state of Yugoslavia.

"An excellent tactician but a poor strategist, Milosevic simply pursued his ambition, at the cost of untold suffering imposed on those who opposed him or represented a threat to his personal strategy of power," said Ms. del Ponte in her opening remarks as the trial began Tuesday.

Casting doubt on the former Yugoslav leader's professed nationalism, del Ponte's deputy, Geoffrey Nice, portrayed him as more of a pragmatist who used other people's beliefs to fuel his own quest for control.

Milosevic, said Mr. Nice, is "a flexible man, who did not waste time with dreams ... a man who regards as fools those who cannot see how easy it is to say one thing and do another."

Del Ponte keeps her dreams to herself. She is a private person who has revealed little of her personal life or motivations. But as she introduced the prosecution case this week, facing her nemesis across a courtroom packed with computer screens and microphones, her short bleached hair and large rimless spectacles lent her an air of severity that matched the gravity of the charges she leveled.

The daughter of a hotelkeeper and a nurse in the Swiss lakeside town of Lugano, del Ponte has said that she had to overcome her father's reluctance to educate a girl, and that she chose law over medicine because the studies would be shorter.

She made a name for herself prosecuting drug smugglers and money launderers in a career that gave her an international view of justice before she was named chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia in 1999. Since then, she has set as her main goal the arrest and conviction of the most senior war crimes suspects - such as Milosevic and two Bosnian Serb leaders who remain at large, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic.

May has presided over the trials of two other, lesser known suspected war criminals at the tribunal, where he has worked since 1997. Known for his often blunt remarks to both prosecution and defense lawyers, delivered in acerbic tones, he has developed a reputation for being firm.

May, who began practicing law in England a year after Milosevic graduated from law school in Belgrade (Milosevic never practiced the profession, however), appears unfazed by the prospect of wrangling publicly with the notoriously rambunctious accused.

Cutting off Milosevic in full flood yesterday, the judge told him sharply that "your views about the tribunal are now completely irrelevant as far as this trial is concerned."

Milosevic is due to begin responding to prosecution charges today.

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