One of Slobodan Milosevic's former cronies appeared before a Belgrade court yesterday in connection with one of the darkest crimes allegedly committed during the 1999 Nato air campaign against Serbia.
Dragoljub Milanovic, the former director-general of the state broadcaster Radio Television Serbia (RTS), is accused of severe negligence in deliberately placing unsuspecting civilians in the line of Nato bombs for propaganda purposes. Prosecutors claim Mr Milanovic's actions led to the deaths of 16 of his employees, who were killed when a Nato missile hit the RTS studio.
But relatives of the victims, and the majority of the Serbian public, believe there was more to it than mere negligence. They believe Mr Milanovic deliberately sacrificed his employees' lives to generate anti-Nato propaganda.
Sixteen people died on the night of 23 April 1999, when a lone Nato rocket hit the RTS studio. A further 16 were injured, some of them severely.
Nato admitted it had deliberately attacked the studio.
There is a widespread belief in Serbia that Mr Milanovic knew that RTS would be hit, but deliberately did nothing to protect his employees.
"It was a premeditated murder for cheap propaganda purposes," says Borka Bankovic, the mother of Ksenija, a 27-year-old video mixer who died in the studio that night. "They probably expected an avalanche of negative reactions in public, here and abroad."
Nato claimed that RTS was a legitimate target. The alliance argued that because RTS produced and broadcast government propaganda, it was "part of Milosevic's war machine". Yet none of those killed were journalists. They were mostly young production workers and technicians. One was a make-up artist.
The attack on the studio did not halt RTS broadcasts the network merely moved to another studio.
Mr Milanovic did not even look at the members of the public in the courtroom as he entered yesterday most of them relatives of the killed.
Once arrogant and bulky, he looked a mere shadow of himself after months spent in jail. He was dismissed from his job after Mr Milosevic fell from power in the Serbian revolution last October, and arrested earlier this year.
He is also accused of serious abuse of RTS funds. Mr Milanovic could be sentenced to a total of up to 30 years in jail if he is found guilty on both sets of charges. Legal experts say the trial could last months.
Some of the victims' mothers wiped away their tears as the trial opened. A young widow looked on, her face pale. A man in his early 30s nervously tapped his hand against his leg. He was an engineer who survived the attack but spent months in hospital overcoming severe injuries.
Borivoje Borovic, one of the lawyers representing families of the victims, said: "Evidence and witnesses point in the direction that Mr Milanovic knew in advance about the attack and we'll try to prove it in the court."
All the most important buildings in Belgrade, including army and police headquarters and television studios, were evacuated when the Nato air strikes began on 24 March 1999.
The same order was given for RTS, but Mr Milanovic disregarded it. Why remains to be seen. The most important targets in Belgrade were usually hit in the dead of the night. On Mr Milanovic's directions, RTS was kept manned at night, with unnecessary triple night shifts of up to 120 people.
Mirjana Stojmenovska says: "They were playing Russian roulette with their own staff." Her 25-year-old son, Darko, was killed in the attack.
* There were new doubts yesterday over a continuing international military presence in Macedonia. A Nato task force is due to leave by 26 September, but there are fears of new fighting between Albanian rebels and government troops when it leaves. The country's President and Interior Minister said neither a continued Nato presence nor a new force would be welcome in the country.Reuse content