Slobodan Milosevic, 64, the former Serbian leader indicted for war crimes for orchestrating the Balkan wars of the 1990s, was found dead in his prison cell near The Hague, the UN tribunal said yesterday.
Milosevic was found on his bed. He appeared to have died of natural causes, a tribunal press officer said. A full autopsy and toxicological examination have been ordered, the tribunal said.
"The guard immediately alerted the detention unit officer in command and the medical officer. The latter confirmed that Slobodan Milosevic was dead," the statement said.
Milosevic had been on trial since February 2002, defending himself against 66 counts of crimes, including genocide, in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo -- proceedings repeatedly interrupted by Milosevic's poor health and chronic heart condition.
He recently asked the tribunal to be released temporarily to go to Moscow for treatment at a heart clinic. The tribunal rejected the request, fearing he would not return to complete his trial.
Steven Kay, a British attorney who had been assigned to represent Milosevic, said yesterday that the former Serb leader would not have fled, and was not suicidal.
"He said to me: `I haven't taken on all this work just to walk away from it and not come back. I want to see this case through,"' Kay told the BBC.
Milosevic's trial was recessed last week to await his next defense witness. Milosevic also was waiting for a court decision on his request to subpoena former US president Bill Clinton as a witness.
His death comes less than a week after the star witness in his trial, former Croatian Serb leader Milan Babic, was found dead in the same prison.
Babic's testimony in 2002 described a political and military command structure headed by Milosevic in Belgrade that operated behind the scenes.
Babic, who was serving a 13-year sentence, committed suicide.
Milosevic's death will be a crushing blow to the tribunal and to those who were looking to establish an authoritative historical record of the Balkan wars.
Though the witness testimony is on public record, history will be denied the judgment of a panel of legal experts weighing the evidence of his personal guilt and the story of his regime.
"Unfortunately, he did not face justice for crimes he has committed in Kosovo as well," Kosovo's Deputy Prime Minister Lufi Haziri said in Pristina.
The EU said Milosevic's death does not absolve Serbia of responsibility to hand over other war crimes suspects.
The death "does not alter in any way the need to come to terms with the legacy of the Balkan wars," Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik, whose country holds the rotating EU president, said in Salzburg.
Milosevic was due to complete his defense at the war crimes tribunal this summer.
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