The trial of Slobodan Milosevic for war crimes in Kosovo is on the verge of collapse because former aides have refused to testify against him.
The case hinges on evidence collected by Western intelligence officers rather than the UN's own investigators, and some of the 90 witnesses who provided testimony against the former Yugoslav president have died.
Three weeks before it is due to open, Europe's most important war crimes trial since Nuremberg is reported to be in such disarray that prosecutors travelled to Belgrade earlier this week to try to shore up the case. But despite visiting several of Mr Milosevic's allies in their jail cells and homes, the team led by the British barrister Geoffrey Nice came away empty-handed, according to sources in Belgrade.
Mr Nice flew to Belgrade on the same flight as Mr Milosevic's wife, Mira, who had been visiting her husband in his cell in Scheveningen in the Netherlands.
Mr Milosevic is accused of the murder of 900 Kosovo Albanians and the forced eviction of 800,000 civilians from their homes in 1999.
The UN tribunal was adamant yesterday that it was "ready" to try Mr Milosevic for crimes against humanity in Kosovo. But Florence Hartmann, a spokeswoman for the UN chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, said the court may decide next week to postpone the case, which is due to begin on 12 February.
Prosecutors want judges to join the Kosovo trial with indictments against Mr Milosevic for war crimes in Bosnia and Croatia, for which there is said to be abundant evidence. Judgesare due to discuss unifying the indictments at a hearing on Wednesday. If they do, they would have to postpone the trial to allow more time for preparation of the Bosnian and Croatian cases against Mr Milosevic.
Ms Hartmann denied that the Kosovo case was collapsing: "We are ready. We don't have any problem with the Kosovo case," she said.
But the case has a fundamental weakness in that the testimonies it relies on are exclusively from Western officials based in Kosovo before Nato air raids began in March 1999, and from ethnic Albanian victims. The credibility of some of these testimonies is in doubt because they were gathered by intelligence officers, and not by the tribunal's own investigators.
Members of Mr Milosevic's inner circle could provide the missing pieces of the puzzle, but it is unlikely that any regime insiders, who share Mr Milosevic's Serb nationalist views, would travel to The Hague to testify against the so-called "Butcher of the Balkans".
His supporters still describe the armed ethnic Albanian rebellion in Kosovo as "terrorism", and view the trial against Mr Milosevic as a Western conspiracy against freedom-loving Serbs. They fear being branded "traitors of the Serb nation" if they testify.
Serb authorities are still balking at Mr Nice's request for two top Milosevic aides be handed over. Nikola Sainovic and Vlajko Stoiljkovic were respectively the official in charge of the security forces in Kosovo and the Interior Minister. The pair, along with their boss, were indicted for war crimes in Kosovo in 1999.
The UN team interrogated Rade Markovic, chief of the secret service under Mr Milosevic, in his Belgrade prison cell three times. Mr Markovic is on trial for his alleged role in an assassination attempt against the former opposition leader Vuk Draskovic.
Mr Markovic's lawyer, Dusan Masic, said his client was willing to go to The Hague, but analysts doubt that his testimony would benefit the prosecution.Reuse content