Kosovo's president testifies against Milosevic in war crimes trial

Friday, May 3rd 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) _ Slobodan Milosevic confronted a longtime foe in his war crimes trial Friday, cross-examining Kosovo's president after he accused the former Yugoslav leader of oppressing ethnic Albanians.

President Ibrahim Rugova, the highest-ranking official to appear at Milosevic's trial, told the U.N. court he met several times with Milosevic during the Serb crackdown on ethnic Albanians in 1998-1999, once during the 78-day NATO bombing of Yugoslavia that drove Serb government troops from the contested territory.

Rugova, then an ethnic Albanian independence leader, said he was forced to appear with Milosevic in Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital, and denounce the bombing or face the ``consequences.''

In April 1999, Rugova said he reluctantly met Milosevic and warned him about ``what was happening in Kosovo ... expulsions, murders, killings.'' Rugova said he told Milosevic he would be held accountable.

During cross-examination, Milosevic accused Rugova of endorsing ``terrorism'' by supporting the province's isolation from Belgrade.

Under the tribunal's statute, Milosevic could be convicted as a superior authority for failing to prevent or punish atrocities committed by his forces.

Milosevic stands accused of five counts of crimes against humanity and violations of the laws or customs of war for the murder of hundreds and expulsion of at least 800,000 ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, the focus of the first part of his trial.

Hearings will later move to the wars in Croatia and Bosnia in the early 1990s for which Milosevic faces an additional 61 war crimes counts, including genocide in Srebrenica, eastern Bosnia.

Rugova recounted how years of tensions turned into violence in 1998, prompting a U.S. ultimatum that Milosevic accept a peace agreement granting broad autonomy to the province or face NATO airstrikes.

``We returned to Kosovo, we were afraid about the future, but also hoping that there will be an intervention by NATO,'' Rugova said.

As NATO missiles started hitting Serb targets in March 1999, Milosevic's security forces burst into Rugova's home in the province's capital, Pristina, and put him under house arrest, Rugova said. He was forced to appear in public and denounce the Western bombing campaign.

``I was under house arrest ... If I refused, there would have been consequences,'' he said.

Milosevic later agreed to let Rugova leave the country and the independence leader became one of the many refugees who fled Serb violence.

Cross-examining the witness, Milosevic asked Rugova: ``Why did you support the terrorist organization of Kosovo Liberation Army,'' consisting of pro-independence guerrillas.

``It was not a terrorist organization, it was organized by people who responded to your repression ... with the purpose of winning freedom for the people'' of Kosovo, Rugova replied.

In 1997, ethnic Albanian guerrillas emerged in Kosovo besides Rugova's peaceful separatists and launched armed attacks against Serbian police, triggering a brutal crackdown by Milosevic's troops.

Milosevic was president of Serbia in 1989 when he revoked Kosovo's autonomy in an attempt to undercut the Rugova-led separatist movement, but only triggered stronger demands for independence. Rugova established an underground political system and a network of schools and hospitals for the ethnic Albanian majority.

Milosevic was indicted in May 1999 along with four of his close aides. Milosevic was ousted in October 2000 when Serb voters overwhelmingly turned against him, and he was arrested and sent to the U.N. court for trial last June.

In another courtroom Friday, Milosevic's former top security adviser and former deputy prime minister, Nikola Sainovic, pleaded innocent to murder, forced deportation and persecution of Kosovo Albanians.