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Yugoslavia: Kosovo's President Testifies Against Milosevic At The Hague

Kosovo's first president, Ibrahim Rugova, testified today in the war crimes trial of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. Rugova gave evidence about the Serbian campaign against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, which culminated in the 1999 NATO air war against Yugoslavia. He was also cross-examined by Milosevic, who is representing himself in the trial in The Hague.

Prague, 3 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Kosovo's president, Ibrahim Rugova, confronted his long-time political foe Slobodan Milosevic today at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, accusing him of a wanting "to destroy Kosovo through violence and war."

Rugova is one of the most prominent officials to testify so far against Milosevic, the former Yugoslav president who is on trial in The Hague for genocide in the Bosnian war and crimes against humanity in Kosovo and Croatia.

Elected president of Kosovo by the province's parliament in March, Rugova led a campaign of passive resistance by Kosovo's Albanian majority against Serbian rule in the 1990s.

Rugova told the tribunal that Milosevic began a campaign of violence against Kosovo Albanians in the 1990s in an effort to put down a bid for independence. Milosevic revoked the province's autonomy in 1989 soon after he was elected Serbia's president.

Rugova described how thousands of ethnic Albanians were fired from their jobs "because of their ethnicity." To counter the repression and attacks, Rugova explained how he helped develop an underground political system and network of schools. The schools were run out of private homes after ethnic Albanian children were no longer permitted to study in their own language.

Rugova said that throughout the 1990s he led a peaceful resistance movement, but that as the violence increased, he worried that ethnic Albanians would begin to take up arms.

"We were for peaceful solutions, for a peaceful policy, and we naturally were frightened because if there were no results, and that went on for too long (no peaceful solution), the citizens and the people of Kosovo might react [violently] because the general repression was very strong."

Rugova described a meeting with Milosevic in 1998. He said Milosevic justified the violence and oppression against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo as a necessary state response against terrorists.

"We said that the situation in Kosovo was bad and that there was lots of violence and repression, and he (Milosevic) of course justified it by saying that the state must respond because there were groups of terrorists. I also mentioned the issue of independence."

Rugova gave a brief overview of his meeting with Milosevic in the spring of 1999 after NATO had already begun its air campaign. After that meeting, Rugova appeared on television shaking hands with Milosevic and appealing to NATO to resolve the conflict peacefully. Rugova did not fully explain why he made the televised appeal, saying only that it was Milosevic's idea to make a statement before the press.

Tribunal spokesman James Landale told RFE/RL today that Rugova was one of the most important prosecution witnesses to take the stand since Milosevic's trial began in February. He says Rugova's role as a pacifist enhances his credibility as a witness.

"The prosecution will be asking him about his peaceful struggle for independence, what measures he took along with other Kosovo Albanian leaders to try and resolve the various difficulties and differences with the Serb authorities in Belgrade."

Landale said Rugova's testimony has shed some light on Milosevic's authority over the actions of Serbian forces in Kosovo.

"I think it's quite possible [that Rugova's testimony could shed light on the depth of Milosevic's control over the situation in Kosovo]. Already this morning, we've had testimony as to Mr. Milosevic's control and authority over the Serb delegation at Ramboulliet (in 1999), and the fact that according to Mr. Rugova, they had to refer back to Belgrade for instructions and advice."

Early this afternoon, Milosevic began his cross-examination of Rugova, focusing on the role of the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) in the violence that broke out in Kosovo. In a brief line of questioning before the tribunal took an afternoon recess, Milosevic questioned Rugova on whether the UCK was a "terrorist" movement.

Rugova dismissed the question, saying that the rebels were "an organization that responded to repression and violence for the purpose of winning freedom for the people."

Milosevic is due to continue his cross-examination of Rugova throughout the afternoon. His questioning is also likely to continue on 6 May.