Milosevic dies in his prison cell

Slobodan Milosevic, the one-time Yugoslav leader who spent the last four years on trial for genocide and crimes against humanity for his role in nearly a decade of Balkan wars, died Saturday in his prison cell near The Hague, according to the U.N. international war crimes tribunal. He was 64.

Milosevic rode nationalist pride and rage to power, and led his Serb compatriots into four ethnic wars.

He lost them all.

Yet, until the end, Milosevic played the defiant master of his own fate and defender of Serb honor. He insisted on defending himself at the U.N. international war crimes tribunal, and reveled in ridiculing prosecution witnesses even as his ruddy face belied the high blood pressure that likely contributed to his death.

A guard found Milosevic “lifeless on his bed in his cell,” according to a statement issued Saturday in The Hague by the tribunal. The statement, which did not specify the time of his death, said Dutch police and a Dutch coroner were summoned and that an autopsy and a full inquiry were ordered. Court officials said there was no evidence of suicide.

At the tribunal, which was under way at The Hague, in the Netherlands, Milosevic was charged with overseeing the worst wartime atrocities against civilians in Europe since World War II. Among them was the massacre of about 8,000 Bosnian men and boys who were taken to the Bosnian town of Srebrenica and herded off for execution in areas throughout the mountainous region.

The Milosevic trial was in its fifth year, and the presiding judge had urged Milosevic to wrap up his defense by May.

Milosevic was one of the driving forces behind the breakup of Yugoslavia, a multiethnic state held together by the charisma and repression of Josip Broz, the World War II fighter and Communist leader known as Tito. The Balkan wars of the 1990s ended with the creation of five new states: Serbia and Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia, Slovenia and Macedonia.

Slovenia and Macedonia broke off from Yugoslavia with relatively little bloodshed. The province of Kosovo is awaiting independence through talks aimed at finally determining its status. Montenegro, which is still joined with Serbia, will vote soon on whether to declare independence.

The wars cost 200,000 civilian lives, created 3 million refugees and left damages estimated at up to $60 billion.

Milosevic also ordered the assassination of several of his political rivals, according to criminal charges brought by Serb courts after his ouster.

His wife, Mirjana Markovic, was a theoretician for Milosevic’s Socialist Party. Serb authorities have charged Markovic and their son, Marko, with abuse of power and corruption. Marko is reported to have earned millions of dollars through cigarette smuggling. Both are in exile in Russia. A daughter, Marija, is in Montenegro.

Milosevic was the last of four nationalist leaders who believed that the end of Yugoslavia provided an opportunity for the emergence of ethnic states. In Croatia, it was Franjo Tudjman. In Bosnia, Alija Izetbegovic. In Kosovo, Ibrahim Rugova.

Milosevic, who spoke in short, sharp sentences, appealed to the Serb sense of history and victimization. One phrase, delivered in 1987 on a battlefield in Kosovo, then a province of Serbia, set his career on a path of destruction. “No one will ever beat you again,” he told a throng of Serbs who were complaining that the majority ethnic Albanians in the province were persecuting them.

Critics say Milosevic benefited royally from power. Mladen Dinkic, Serb finance minister until earlier this year, wrote that Yugoslavia under Milosevic was a country in which “paranormal economic phenomena are an everyday occurrence.” More than half the country’s revenue was deposited in so-called special accounts not listed in its budget, and few transactions, payments, billings or sales followed normal, legal business practices.

“This is why Serbia is poor,” said Milorad Savicevic, who at the end of the Milosevic era managed two state-owned corporations. “We had low production, no investment and lots of corruption. The result is a nation with 4 million really poor people, and 10,000 really rich people” in a total population of 10 million living on agriculturally fertile land.

A successor and longtime rival, the late prime minister Zoran Djindjic, engineered Milosevic’s extradition to the Hague in April 2001 under international pressure. A secret police sniper assassinated Djindjic in March 2003, as the Djindjic government began to crack down on the Milosevic-era alliance between criminals and security forces. Serbia is now ruled by a fractious coalition that includes Milosevic’s former Socialist Party.

In his jail cell, Milosevic read works by Ernest Hemingway and John Updike, a biographer reported, and listened to the music of Celine Dion and Frank Sinatra.

Sinatra’s “My Way” was a favorite.

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