Karadzic faces first day in court on genocide charges

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Radovan Karadzic, one of the world's most wanted fugitives, makes his long-awaited first court appearance today following a dead-of-night secret transfer to a UN jail cell in The Hague.

The Yugoslav war crimes tribunal will ask the former Bosnian Serb leader to enter his plea on 11 charges of waging genocide against non-Serbs, including the 43-month siege of Sarajevo and the 1995 massacre of 8,000 Muslims at Srebrenica.

Early on Wednesday morning, Mr Karadzic, 63, was whisked out of Belgrade, where he was arrested last week disguised as a spiritual healer, and flown to Rotterdam. He travelled to The Hague by helicopter before being taken to his cell, which is identical to that occupied by his former ally and Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic.

Prosecutors are keen to avoid the long delays and ultimate failure of their campaign for justice against Mr Milosevic, whose trial dragged on for four years before he died in his cell in 2006.

Yesterday the tribunal's chief prosecutor Serge Brammertz promised that those lessons had been learnt. "Of course it will take some months before the prosecution and the defence will be ready to start," he said. "It will be a complex trial but we are fully aware of the importance of being efficient.

"The arrest of Radovan Karadzic is immensely important for the victims who had to wait so long for this day. It is also important for international justice because it clearly demonstrates that there is no alternative to the arrest of war criminals and that there can be no safe haven for fugitives."

Mr Karadzic's lawyer, Svetozar Vujacic, has said his client believes that he will be cleared of all the charges but will delay entering a plea for the 30 days allowed by the court.

The former Bosnian Serb leader spent more than a decade on the run, most recently living under the assumed name Dragan Dabic, having grown a flowing beard and long hair. After being arrested last week, the first thing he apparently asked for was a razor and a haircut.

Hours before he left Belgrade, about 25,000 protesters rallied in the capital in support of Mr Karadzic. Police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse a ultra-nationalist faction of about 100 people. Many Serbian nationalists consider the tribunal to be biased, and analysts say the Karadzic trial is a time for the court to prove its objectivity.

Mr Karadzic's eventual delivery to The Hague also paves the way for Serbia to form closer ties with the EU, although Brussels still wants to see the Bosnian Serb wartime commander Ratko Mladic arrested and extradited.

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