Slobodan Milosevic finished his address to the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague yesterday by accusing Western powers of destroying the former Yugoslavia and denying advance knowledge of the infamous massacre at Srebrenica or other horrors in Bosnia.
The war crimes trial then moved into its second stage with the calling of the first witness for the prosecution. The former Communist chief of Kosovo, Mahmut Bakali, said the former Yugoslav president knew about crimes committed in the province by Serbian security forces but did nothing to stop them.
Mr Milosevic, on trial for genocide and crimes against humanity, denied the central claim of the prosecutor, that he had "command responsibility" for atrocities on Bosnia and Croatia. Last week, Geoffrey Nice, the prosecutor, accused Mr Milosevic of providing political, financial, and logistical support to Bosnian Serbs and of commanding Yugoslav troops.
Yesterday Mr Milosevic hit back, describing the accusation as "nonsensical". He added: "Either de jure, or de facto, I had no control over the Yugoslav people's army. This invention of command responsibility is a major lie."
The former Yugoslav president specifically rejected accusations that he had helped the former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic drive Muslims and Croats out of Bosnia during the 1992-95 war. "We were helping the Serbian people on the other side of the Drina river so they could survive but we had poor relations with their leadership," Mr Milosevic told the court. "We were leftist, they were rightist."
As for the murder of about 7,000 men and boys at Srebrenica, the former Yugoslav president said he learnt about the killings from the UN special envoy Carl Bildt. "I called Karadzic and he swore he knew nothing about it," Mr Milosevic said. "Now, whether he did or didn't know, I don't want to get into. But what I'm saying, what I'm telling you now, is a fact." He denied knowledge of the horrors in Bosnian prison camps, saying he was told detainees were kept only briefly to be swapped in prisoner exchanges.
The statements, near the end of his opening address to the court that took 10 hours over three days, are important because they contest one central element of the prosecution's case. The prosecution lawyers must now prove the links between Mr Milosevic and those who committed the murders and forced expulsions for which he is being held responsible.
That should be easier in the indictments concerning Kosovo, which was part of Yugoslavia and therefore formally under Belgrade's control, than for those relating to Bosnia and Croatia. Mr Milosevic, facing 66 counts of war crimes, has spent more than two days attempting to shift the blame for a decade of bloodshed in the Balkans to the big Western powers and Nato. Yesterday he said the West wanted to assert its economic, political, social and cultural domination over Yugoslavia, and had done so by playing on the tensions among national and ethnic groups.
"They opted for the method of national conflict," he said. "Nationalism was incited, along with national hatred and national conflicts, flames were fanned to turn into a full-fledged war." Again Mr Milosevic presented himself as a victim, saying: "My whole family is under attack." His wife and confidante, Mira Markovic, had been "the subject of the most savage media campaign with the most grievous fabrications bandied about", he said, describing her as an intellectual who had made "superhuman efforts" for peace.
Mr Bakali, the senior Communist party official in Kosovo until 1981 and now a member of the Kosovo parliament, said a Serbian security officer told him in 1997 that Mr Milosevic already had a "scorched earth" plan for Kosovo, which alleg-edly included the levelling of some 700 ethnic Albanian settlements. He accused Mr Milosevic of imposing an "apartheid" against the majority Kosovo Albanians.