Chief U.N. prosecutor calls Milosevic death before verdict 'great pity for justice'

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The chief U.N. prosecutor said Sunday that Slobodan Milosevic's death just before the close of trial deprived victims of justice — and made the capture of war crimes fugitives Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic even more urgent.

"It is a great pity for justice that the (Milosevic) trial will not be completed and no verdict will be rendered," Carla Del Ponte said at a news conference a day after the former Yugoslav leader was found dead in his cell near the Hague.

His death "deprives victims of the justice they need and deserve," she said.

She also said suicide could not be ruled out in Milosevic's death until the results of an autopsy were available. Earlier, the tribunal said there were no outward signs of suicide or unnatural death when his body was found Saturday.

Autopsy results were expected Sunday evening or Monday morning. "You have the choice between normal, natural death and suicide," she said. She declined to comment on rumors that Milosevic may have been poisoned.

Del Ponte said Milosevic's death made "more urgent than ever" the arrest and extradition of Karadzic, the wartime Bosnian Serb leader, and his top officer, Mladic, for crimes committed during the Balkans wars in the 1990s.

Del Ponte, a former Swiss prosecutor, said the trials of eight other suspects indicted for the massacre of some 8,000 Muslims in the Bosnian enclave of Srebrenica in 1995 will help establish the record on Milosevic's involvement in what was Europe's worst slaughter since World War II.

Balkan crimes affected hundreds of thousands and will not go unpunished, she said. "We will be able to do it in other trials."

She said the Milosevic trial was close to completion and was due to wrap up in the spring, she told reporters at the U.N. Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

Milosevic died less than one week after former Croatian Serb leader Milan Babic committed suicide in the same prison in Scheveningen, a suburb of The Hague. Babic, once a Milosevic ally, had been a key prosecution witness in his trial.

But Del Ponte denied that the two deaths should deter the surrender or arrest of other fugitives. In addition to the Karadzic and Mladic, four other suspects remain on the tribunal's wanted list.

Del Ponte said the case against Milosevic was strong.

In June 2004, the three judges hearing his case rejected a defense motion to dismiss the case, which she said confirmed there was "sufficient evidence capable of supporting conviction for the 66 counts" of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity on which he was indicted.