Six top Milosevic aides go on trial in The Hague

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The Independent Online

The former Serbian president Milan Milutinovic has gone on trial in The Hague

with five others on charges of murder and persecution of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. He was a close ally of the late Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic.

Much of the political and military elite from the Milosevic era are in the dock, accused of mass murder and forcing more than 800,000 people from their homes.

The trial is being seen as an outlet for ethnic Albanians and the international community, who felt cheated by Milosevic's death, and an important step toward defining the responsibility of the Serbian regime in Kosovo. Alongside Mr Milutinovic were the former deputy prime minister Nikola Sainovic; the former army chief of staff General Dragoljub Ojdanic; the former army commander in Kosovo General Nebojsa Pavkovic; his Pristina corps commander General Vladimir Lazarevic and the police commander of the southern Serbian province Sreten Lukic.

Thomas Hannis, for the prosecution, told the court yesterday: "The evidence in this case will show that the six accused were co-participants with Slobodan Milosevic and other Serbian political, military and police officials in a joint criminal enterprise.

"They burnt or destroyed villages, so there was nothing left to return to," he added. In the preparatory stages of the trial, all of the defendants have protested their innocence and all sat impassively through the hearings.

Three of them, Mr Sainovic, Mr Ojdanic and Mr Pavkovic, remained loyal to Milosevic until his death. They attended his funeral last March, when they were on provisional release after having surrendered to the tribunal.

Mr Hannis said the prosecution would provide evidence of large-scale killings in Kosovo at nine locations where mass graves containing the bodies of 924 ethnic Albanians were discovered. He paid particular attention to one of the most gruesome crimes; the killing of 44 members of the Berisa family in Suva Reka on 26 March 1999, two days after Nato began its bombing campaign against Serbia. They were rounded up by Serb security forces into a coffee shop and killed by machine-gun fire from outside. A hand grenade was also tossed into the shop.

Among the victims were 15 women and 15 children. Their bodies were taken to a mass grave in Kosovo, but dug up later that year and moved to Serbia proper. A freezer truck containing the bodies was submerged in the Danube, 190 miles north-east of Suva Reka. But later they were taken from the river and moved to a police training centre in Batajnica, eight miles north of Belgrade.

They were dug up from the training centre in 2001 and the massacre was revealed to the Serbian public. Two women from the Berisa family, who survived the massacre by pretending to be dead and later on jumped from the lorry, are expected to testify before the tribunal.

In addition to this, the prosecutor pinpointed 13 places in Kosovo where civilians were evicted by Serb security forces. They were allowed to take only a few belongings before being transported to neighbouring Albania or Macedonia. Mr Hannis described the work of Serbian security forces in Kosovo as a "systematic and widespread" campaign of murders, robbery, rape and evictions, aimed at changing the ethnic balance in the province.

The trial against the six is going to long, as the prosecution said that it would need a year to submit its evidence and the defence is expected to take as long. One of the witnesses in the trial is expected to be the US general Wesley Clarke, who at the time was the Nato commander of the air campaign against Serbia.

The old regime

* MILAN MILUTINOVIC

A close ally of Slobodan Milosevic and president of Serbia from 1997-2002, Milutinovic is charged with a number of war crimes, including murder and forced deportations, for his role in theethnic cleansing of Kosovo's Albanian population.

* NIKOLA SAINOVIC

Sainovic handed himself into the tribunal in May 2002. He was appointed deputy prime minister of Serbia in 1994 and was Milosevic's representative in Kosovo. Prosecutors accuse him of facilitating the campaign of ethnic cleansing.

* DRAGOLJUB OJDANIC

Under Milan Milutinovic, General Ojdanic commanded the Yugoslav military and police units in Kosovo as the army's chief of staff. He was indicted in May 1999 and surrendered to the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

* NEBOJSA PAVKOVIC

General Pavkovic is charged with several counts of crimes against humanity for his role as commander of the Yugoslav 3rd Army, which was responsible for much of the destruction of property and ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.

* VLADIMIR LAZAREVIC

Colonel General Lazarevic, commander of the Yugoslav 3rd Army's elite Pristina Corps, surrendered to The Hague in February 2005 after 15 months at large. He often gave interviews expressing his wishes for a reoccupation of Kosovo.

* SRETEN LUKIC

The former Serb police chief in Kosovo, Lukic had major heart surgery after his indictment. Head of the heavily-armed ministry of internal affairs paramilitary force, his lawyer says he was sent to The Hague "against his will".

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