Milosevic agrees to face his accusers at 'evil court'    

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Slobodan Milosevic signalled for the first time yesterday that he would defend himself at his war crimes trial by calling for his provisional release from jail and announcing that he would return to The Hague to fight the charges.

"This is a battle I will not miss," said Mr Milosevic who, during his 30-minute address to the court, accused it of an "evil and hostile attack" against him. His promise to contest the trial, marks a change of tack by the former Yugoslav president who has previously rejected the authority of the court or its right to try him.

The court had met to hear an appeal for the Kosovo indictments against Mr Milosevic, for which he is due to stand trial on 12 February, to be combined with those against him stemming from the wars in Bosnia and Croatia.

Mr Milosevic faces a total of 66 war crimes charges, including genocide, spanning nearly a decade of conflict in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo and could face life imprisonment if found guilty of any charge.

According to sources in Belgrade, the Kosovo case against Mr Milosevic was on the verge of collapse because of the reluctance of allies of the former Yugoslav president to testify against him, as well as the dubious circumstances in which some evidence was gathered.

As of yesterday, none of the Milosevic insiders approached by the prosecution appeared to have changed their mind.

But Belgrade is under pressure to speed up its co-operation with the tribunal or face a slowdown in badly needed financial aid and Yugoslavia's readmission into the international community.

Zoran Djindjic, the reform-minded Prime Minister of Serbia, said yesterday that the country would have to extradite "three or four" more indictees to the UN war crimes tribunal to prove its democratic credentials.

There were reports in Belgrade that the Serbian President, Milan Milutinovic, may be extradited to The Hague before 12 February. He, along with Mr Milosevic and three Serbian officials, has been charged with war crimes in Kosovo.

Mr Milutinovic has been mentioned as an official who could cut a deal with the tribunal. But it remains uncertain whether he would testify against Mr Milosevic. The office of Mr Milutinovic, who kept his post despite the democratic changes in the country in October 2000, declined to comment on the report.

A court decision to hold a wide-ranging trial would be a boost for the prosecution, which says it is able to provide ample evidence against Mr Milosevic stemming from the wars against Bosnia and Croatia.

The chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, whose office strongly denies any problems with the Kosovo case, argued yesterday that Mr Milosevic's plan to create a greater Serbia underpinned all his crimes during the Balkan wars.

They were "one strategy, one scheme" to create a greater Serbia by "forced and violent expulsion of the non-Serbian population", she said. Ms Del Ponte added that the prosecution would be ready to begin as scheduled in two weeks, starting with Kosovo and later focusing on Croatia and Bosnia.

She said the prosecution intended to call several former insiders from the Milosevic regime, and feared they would not be able to return to The Hague to testify again if the trials were held separately. Part of the prosecution's problem with the Kosovo case is that some of the witnesses who provided testimony against the former Yugoslav president have since died.

Describing the numerous counts against him as "abnormal and nonsensical," Mr Milosevic told the court in The Hague yesterday that his goal was to protect Serbs and bring peace to the troubled republics of Yugoslavia. He said of the indictments: "I would call this an evil and hostile attack aimed at justifying the crimes committed against my country."