New tirade from Milosevic as trial date is set

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The former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, unbowed by six months behind bars, accused his United Nations prosecutors yesterday of operating at the "intellectual level of a retarded seven-year-old child".

The UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague set a tentative date of 12 February 2002 for the trial of Mr Milosevic for allegedly masterminding state murder, rape and mass deportation of thousands of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

The trial could be delayed, however, if the judges agree to include existing and expected charges that Mr Milosevic organised mass murder in Croatia and Bosnia after the break-up of Yugoslavia from 1991.

Carla Del Ponte, the chief prosecutor, who is from Switzerland, said she planned to call hundreds of witnesses and present thousands of documents that would prove Mr Milosevic embarked on a deliberate policy of "ethnic cleansing" to ensure Serb domination of the Balkans.

Allowed a brief opportunity to speak – nominally to complain about the conditions of his detention – Mr Milosevic, 60, unleashed a prepared diatribe against his prosecutors and judges. He accused Ms Del Ponte of "bias", asked for her removal and suggested that the judges were part of the "machinery" of the Nato alliance, whose judgments had already been written for them.

"Please read out those judgments that you have been instructed to read," Mr Milosevic shouted in Serbo-Croat. "Don't bother me and make me listen for hours on end to the reading of texts written at the intellectual level of a seven-year-old child – rather, I correct myself – a retarded seven-year-old child." The presiding judge, Richard May from Britain, interrupted to say that Mr Milosevic had the right, at this stage, to comment only on his prison conditions.

The former Serbian and Yugoslav president – who was arrested in Serbia on corruption charges in April and extradited to The Hague in June to face trial for war crimes – asked the judges to order the removal of cameras from his cell and for permission for private family visits.

"Apparently they are monitoring me so that I should not commit suicide," Mr Milosevic said. "I would never commit suicide because I must struggle here to topple this tribunal and this farce of a trial and the masterminds who are using it against the people who are fighting for freedom in the world."

Mr Milosevic, ousted after an uprising last October, threatened to shoot himself in April rather than be imprisoned in Belgrade on corruption charges. There have been reports that he has suffered from severe depression since he was sent to The Hague. One Serb suspect has already hanged himself while in UN custody.

On Monday, Mr Milosevic had refused to enter pleas on the Croatia and Kosovo charges. On his behalf, the court entered pleas of not guilty to a total of 37 counts of crimes against humanity, breaches of the Geneva Conventions and violations of the laws or customs of war.

In an earlier tirade, Mr Milosevic alleged that his trial was inciting terrorist attacks on Serbs by ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. "This trial has direct implications on inciting terrorism in southern Serbia. In the past few days and months, Albanian terrorists have been slaughtering, killing, plundering, burning and doing everything as they did it before," he said. "They have been given wings."

Mr Milosevic also claimed that Osama bin Laden, the Saudi millionaire accused of plotting the terrorist attacks on America last month, had been in Albania last year. He said Washington had requested his help in tracking him down.

Those claims were later denied by American officials.