Prague, 27 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Louise Arbour, today announced indictments against Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and four other senior Serbian officials on charges of committing crimes against humanity, including murder.
"The following accused are jointly indicted. Slobodan Milosevic, President of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Milan Milutinovic, President of the Republic of Serbia, Nikola Sajnovic, Deputy Prime Minister of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Dragoljub Bogdanovic, Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and Vlajko Stojilkovic, Minister of Internal Affairs of the Republic of Serbia."
The indictment of Milosevic is the first time the international community has presented charges against a head of state in office for atrocities allegedly committed during an armed conflict.
Arbour says the indictments were completed and sealed Tuesday but only made public today following the departure from Yugoslavia of a UN humanitarian team.
Arbour made clear that the case was not built only on the political or military command responsibilities of the accused.
"This is a case that is not solely based on command responsibility. We have charged all five accused under Article 71 of our statute, that is, on the basis of personal criminal responsibility for ordering, planning, instigating, executing, or aiding and abetting in the commission of these offenses."
Arbour also said that investigations continue and that additional charges will likely be brought.
"The present indictment is based exclusively on crimes committed since the beginning of 1999 in Kosovo. We are continuing to develop an evidentiary base upon which I believe we will be able to expand upon the present charges. We are still actively investigating other incidents in Kosovo, as well as the roles of the accused, or some of them, in Croatia and in Bosnia in earlier years."
Today's indictments bring to 66 the number of people formally and publicly charged by the ICTY in connection with atrocities in the former Yugoslavia. The tribunal has so far convicted seven people and acquitted one in its six years of existence.
The indictments come at a time when lengthy negotiations brokered by Russia appeared to be making some progress toward an accord. Analysts say the indictment thus threatens to prevent Milosevic from once again taking on the role of peace maker as happened during the negotiations that resulted in the Dayton Accords in late 1995.
Arbour today suggested that Milosevic is not a suitable negotiating partner for peace talks.
"Although the accused are entitled to the benefit of the presumption of innocence until they are convicted, the evidence upon which this indictment was confirmed raises serious questions about their suitability to be the guarantors of any deal, let alone a peace agreement. They have not been rendered less suitable by the indictment. The indictment has simply exposed their unsuitability. An independent review by a judge of this tribunal has confirmed that there is credible basis to believe that these accused are criminally responsible for the deportation of 740,000 Kosovo Albanians from Kosovo, and for the murder of over 340 identified Kosovo Albanians."
Nevertheless, Washington, Moscow and Beijing have signaled that they do not intend to let the indictment determine the course of conduct of their Yugoslav-related policies.
An unidentified "senior U.S. official" told the New York Times overnight that Washington doesn't "rule out further contacts if they are necessary to achieve [U.S.] objectives and further [U.S.] national interest".
But Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, Sergei Lavrov, says the indictment "would be entirely counterproductive from the point of view of the political process" to bring the conflict over Kosovo to a negotiated end.
And in Beijing today, foreign ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao expressed China's concern "about the effect such an action may have on efforts to advance a political resolution for the Kosovo question".
Belgrade appears in no mood to respect the indictment, having already permanently barred chief prosecutor Arbour from ever visiting Yugoslavia.
Yugoslav Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Branko Brankovic, told reporters today that The Hague tribunal "does not exist" for Yugoslavia, nor does the indictment. Brankovic branded the indictment "the last attempt by the NATO countries" to avoid what he said "is obviously inevitable", which he described as "a total collapse of the policy of aggression by NATO against... Yugoslavia." The Yugoslav Ambassador says NATO countries could be charged with war crimes for bombing Yugoslavia. He also alleged that the indictment of Milosevic is merely an excuse for NATO to continue the bombing of targets in Yugoslavia.
Tribunal chief prosecutor Arbour insists the five indictments are not directed against the Serbian people. But several opposition leaders in Belgrade have expressed the fear that the indictment will backfire by removing any incentive for Milosevic to compromise.
However, even as Arbour was reading out details of the indictment, Milosevic called for a political solution to the Kosovo conflict "without delay".
There has been a mixed reaction to the indictment among western officials. In Paris, French Interior Minister Jean-Pierre Chevenement criticized the indictments, saying that the West must pursue political efforts to seek what he termed a "reasonable and sensible accord so that the ethnic Albanians and Serbs can live together." But EU humanitarian affairs commissioner Emma Bonino praised the tribunal, saying the indictments mark "important progress towards peace." In her words, "punishing criminals who do not respect international conventions is a part of international justice; there can be no peace without justice."
British historian and commentator Timothy Garton Ash, who has reported extensively on the Balkans and Milosevic, told RFE/RL that the indictment marks a significant moment for the tribunal. He said it reinforces its position as an independent court not subject to interference by permanent members of the UN Security Council.