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Yugoslavia: Milosevic, Ashdown Face Off At Hague Tribunal

Prague, 15 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Paddy Ashdown, a former British envoy to the Balkans, faced off with former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic today at the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague, where Milosevic is charged with crimes against humanity and genocide.

Ashdown, the first Western official to take the stand in the Milosevic trial, told the court he had warned Milosevic in 1998 to end violence against civilians in Kosovo or face international intervention:

"The very purpose of my visit [to Belgrade in September 1998] was to seek to persuade you, [Mr Milosevic], to take action which would have prevented that intervention. I said to you, in specific terms, that if you went on acting in this fashion, you would make it inevitable that the international community would have to act. And in the end, they did have to act. And I warned you that if you took those steps and went on doing this, you would end up in this court -- and here you are."

Prior to meeting Milosevic in Belgrade, Ashdown had witnessed the expulsion of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo by Serbian forces.

He recalled seeing Kosovo villages on fire, refugees fleeing the province, and indiscriminate shelling by Yugoslav forces. Ashdown said he warned Milosevic that if he continued with what Ashdown called "gross, flagrant violations of international laws," Milosevic would be indictable for war crimes.

"I recall specifically saying that the actions that he (Milosevic) was taking (in Kosovo) were, in my view, clearly in breach of the Geneva Convention. As I have explained to the court, I identified the passages of the Geneva Convention to which we have already referred, and I told him that, in my view, if he were to continue with these operations, he would make himself indictable for war crimes, because he was personally responsible for any further continuation after this meeting."

Six months after Ashdown met Milosevic in Belgrade, NATO launched airstrikes against Yugoslavia, forcing the withdrawal of Serbian forces from Kosovo in June 1999.

Milosevic does not recognize the court and is defending himself in a historic trial in which he faces 66 charges of alleged war crimes in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosovo in the 1990s. He has vigorously crossexamined prosecution witnesses since the trial began five weeks ago.

But Milosevic met his match today when he opened his cross-examination of Ashdown, accusing the ex-Royal Marine commando of representing a country that committed war crimes against Yugoslavia during the NATO bombing.

Ashdown sharply replied that the bombing was Milosevic's own fault and that Milosevic had been warned to stop his campaign of terror in Kosovo or face the consequences.

"The estimates are that in this period (September 1998), long before the NATO 'aggression,' more than 300,000 Albanians had been driven from their homes by the actions of your (Milosevic's) troops. So, these were entirely the responsibility of you, of your troops, or perhaps for some other reasons you may be able to identify. They have nothing to do with the NATO 'aggression.'"

Ashdown calmly answered Milosevic's questions, which centered on NATO's bombing campaign and the suffering of Serbs at the hands of the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army. (Ashdown uses the initials 'KLA').

"I have never denied, either in my evidence or so far as I know, in any other speeches or articles that I've written, that there was KLA activity, that innocent Serbs were suffering. But none of this, none of it, justifies or excuses the use of excessive, outrageous force by your armed forces, under your control, in an indiscriminate, punitive manner across the whole of the civilian population (of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo)."

Milosevic responded to Ashdown's statement by again seeking to highlight his argument that he was battling a "terrorist organization" in Kosovo.

"I can tell you, that you are the first person sitting in that chair to say during these proceedings that he does not deny that the KLA was a terrorist organization. Everyone before you denied that."

Ashdown, who has been nominated to be the next UN High Representative in Bosnia, began his testimony at the trial yesterday. He described the conditions faced by Kosovo Albanian refugees driven from their homes by Serbian forces in 1998. Ashdown said he had spoken to wounded refugees in June of that year, some nine months before NATO started its bombing of Yugoslavia.

"They all had similar stories to tell: that they were ordered out of their villages by army, police," Ashdown told the court.