Judge rejects witness to give Milosevic first win

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Slobodan Milosevic scored his first victory against war crimes prosecutors yesterday when evidence against him from one main witness was ruled inadmissible because it was based on hearsay.

As the prosecution continued to outline its case against the former Yugoslav president, its chief war crimes investigator for Kosovo, Kevin Curtis, was prevented from testifying about the "killing sites" where thousands of Kosovo Albanians were said to have been murdered by Serb forces in 1999. The three judges ruled his evidence would be irrelevant because it was based on accounts heard from others, rather than an eyewitness.

In effect, the judges decided they wanted to hear directly from those who say they suffered at the hands of the Serbs, rather than hearing a summary of what happened from a prosecution investigator who collected about 1,000 statements from crime scenes.

Jim Landale, a spokesman for the tribunal, said it was "standard practice" for the judges to rule on the areas in which witnesses could give evidence.

However, yesterday's decision represents a blow to the prosecution, which has had acute difficulty in persuading insiders from Belgrade to give evidence against Mr Milosevic.

Florence Hartmann, a spokeswoman for the prosecution, said the case would not be affected and said "crime-base witnesses" who are "victims of the crimes mentioned in the indictment" would be called next.

Mr Milosevic faces 66 charges of war crimes for offences spanning a decade of conflict in the Balkans. The indictments cover murders in Kosovo, Croatia and Bosnia. He is accused of genocide in Bosnia and, if convicted, is likely to be sentenced to life in prison.

Yesterday, he was confronted for the first time with harrowing testimony from a Kosovo Albanian who survived the atrocities. Agim Zeqiri, a Muslim farmer, described how Serb forces in uniforms "the colour of grass" burnt down parts of his village of Celina, one day after Nato launched air strikes against Yugoslavia in late March 1999.

Although Carla Del Ponte, the chief prosecutor, has gone out of her way to stress that one individual is on trial, and not the Serb people, the hearing has provoked strong passions in Belgrade. Vojislav Kostunica, the Yugoslav President, is among those who have criticised the prosecution's case.

Mr Curtis and Stephen Spargo, the prosecution's intelligence analyst, were summoned as witnesses to support the prosecution claim that Mr Milosevic planned the ethnic cleansing of the Kosovo Albanians.

In the event, only Mr Spargo addressed the tribunal, displaying a series of maps that he said showed the routes taken by 800,000 ethnic Albanian refu-gees who were deported or fled from Kosovo and the Serbian forces in 1999.

Showing his now familiar contempt for the case against him, Mr Milosevic dismissed the evidence, saying that witnesses "will probably get down to the prosecutor's driver or a hairdresser", before Richard May, the presiding judge, cut him short. "Mr Milosevic, we are with you. We are going to exclude it," Judge May said.

The former Yugoslav president insisted he had "nothing to do with crimes and crime sites", adding: "You can speak of crime sites only if you have evidence I was present at the site of the crime and that I committed those crimes."

Mr Milosevic's confident and combative 10-hour address to the court, and his cross-examination of witnesses, has allowed him to take much of the initiative at the tribunal. However, experts argue that is unlikely to affect the outcome, which will be determined on points of law by the judges.

There is little doubt the prosecution will be able to establish that a series of grisly atrocities were committed as ethnic Albanians were forced from their homes. The challenge is to link them to Mr Milosevic.