Milosevic begins his war-crimes defense with broadsides

Speaking more like a prosecutor than a defendant, former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic opened his defense on war-crimes charges here yesterday with a blistering attack on his accusers.

By turns hectoring and scornful, but always belligerent, Mr. Milosevic blamed NATO for the crimes with which he is charged in Kosovo, and Western leaders for the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, which led to the fratricidal Balkan wars of the 1990s.

"They want to proclaim us, who were the victims of the aggression, the culprits ... to reverse the roles," Milosevic said, speaking as much to the assembled media, and through them, to international opinion, as to the court.

Challenging the prosecutors' account of an organized campaign of butchering and deportation of Kosovo Albanians by Serb forces in 1998-99, Milosevic presented his troops as putting up a "heroic defense against NATO aggression" while US and other Western air forces and ethnic Albanian guerrillas deliberately targeted civilians so as to force them to flee.

Western journalists, part of what he called a "media darkness," misrepresented the refugees' flight so as to justify continued NATO attackson Yugoslavia, Milosevic claimed.

"The fleeing that you call deportation coincided with the bombing," he said. Claims that Serbs were responsible were "a whole construction of fabrications and all lies."

"You basically have nothing," he told the chief prosecutor, Carla del Ponte, sitting across the courtroom from him. "That's why you have to concoct and invent things."

Milosevic portrayed himself as the representative of a nation on trial.

The prosecutor, he said, referring to del Ponte's assistant Geoffrey Nice, who outlined the case before the court earlier this week, "has accused Serbia and all Serbs ... he is accusing the people, the nation ... my behavior here is an expression of the will of the people, too."

But he complained about an imbalance of forces at the trial.

The prosecutors, backed by teams of investigators, "have everything at [their] disposal," he said. "I have only a public telephone booth in prison ... to face the most terrible kind of libel.

"Let me go free so that I can take an active stand," he appealed to the three judges. "You want us to take part in a 100-meter swimming race, but you want to tie my hands and feet."

Milosevic offered a wholesale denial of other crimes with which he is charged, saying Serb soldiers were expressly forbidden to shoot civilians, that he had no knowledge of any concentration camps, and that he had publicly condemned the shelling of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb forces during that city's three-year siege.

"This show that is supposed to take place in the guise of a trial is actually a crime against a sovereign state, against the Serb people and against me," he complained.

"It is also a crime against the truth, and what makes it particularly cynical is that it is a crime against justice."

Milosevic was due to continue his opening statement on Friday, before the prosecution starts calling witnesses.

The defendant faces 66 counts of genocide and other war crimes, and a maximum sentence of life in prison.

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