Trial opens of Serb 'who gave ethnic cleansing to world'

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A war crimes trial against the Serbian ultra-nationalist leader Vojislav Seselj has opened with the prosecution labelling him as the man "who gave the world the term ethnic cleansing".

Mr Seselj, 53, is accused of introducing belligerent nationalism that incited inter-ethnic hatred and led to the war between Muslims, Croats and Serbs in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. It resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of people and forced the dislocation of hundreds of thousands, most of them non-Serbs.

He launched a joint enterprise with the former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic to create a "Greater Serbia" by inciting the forced removal of Croat, Muslim and other non-Serbs in large areas of former Yugoslavia.

Mr Seselj was Mr Milosevic's right-hand man for a decade, and is believed to have done and said what Milosevic could not.

Christine Dahl, the prosecutor, said yesterday in her opening statement that "prior to him [Seselj], ethnic balance was normal and Yugoslavia was a mosaic of nations". However, his fierce engagement in warmongering rhetoric "in countless speeches" showed how the power of words can lead to "unspeakable crimes", she added.

The prosecution presented chilling videos of Mr Seselj's poisonous nationalist addresses to Serbs. In them, he called for the "annihilation of others", with the help of his "volunteers", who simply by appearing would make non-Serbs flee whole areas of Bosnia or Croatia during the war.

Dressed in a dark suit, Mr Seselj appeared relaxed, taking notes and smiling when the tapes were broadcast. Although in the tribunal's custody in The Hague since 2003, he remains one of the most popular politicians in Serbia. He denies all the charges and, like Mr Milosevic before him, has insisted on conducting his own defence before the tribunal.

His ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS) is the single most popular party, with 30 per cent support – sympathisers are mostly Serb refugees from Bosnia and Croatia.

Serbian state television caved in to pressure from the SRS and its supporters and agreed to broadcast Mr Seselj's trial. The case is being heard in the same courtroom where the long process against Milosevic took place, until his death in March 2006.

The trial opened on the same day as Serbia initialled the long-sought Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the European Union as a first step towards eventual EU membership. However, the country has been struck by a wave of nationalism similar to the Nineties over Kosovo's moves towards independence.

Although the Seselj-style invective has been dropped, the conservative government of Vojislav Kostunica is using almost the same arguments to rally Serbs together to confront the alleged "international conspiracy" against Serbs, who are a minority in the province.