Andrew Osborn








Tearful Ashdown in court skirmish with Milosevic.

The Guardian, 16th March 2002 20:03


By Andrew Osbornin the Hague.

It was not the House of Commons, but the cross-examination of Lord Ashdown by Slobodan Milosevic at the former Yugoslav president's trial yesterday generated enough sarcasm and mocking laughter to fill 100 prime minister's question times.

Giving evidence for the second day, Lord Ashdown, who made two fact-finding trips to Kosovo in 1998, repeatedly clashed with Mr Milosevic on the issue of ethnic cleansing.

At one point Lord Ashdown, who has recently been appointed the UN's high representative to Bosnia, fought back tears as he described coming across a column of Kosovan Albanian refugees who, he claimed, were fleeing the Yugoslav armed forces after they had been savagely shelled and had their homes burned to the ground.

As the court watched a video of Lord Ashdown listening to the refugees' stories, the former Liberal Democrat leader provided an emotional commentary as he struggled to keep his composure.

"I found it very difficult to cope with at the time," he said. "They were desperately frightened and I found it a deeply terrible sight. [They were] on the back of tractors sheltering from the rain under plastic sheets. There were old men, women, children and babes in arms. They were frightened out of their skins."

This is not the first time the two men have met. In September 1998, Lord Ashdown had an hour-long meeting with Mr Milosevic in Belgrade, at which he handed over a letter from Tony Blair warning the former Yugoslav president that he risked being indicted for war crimes, an irony not lost on the peer yesterday.

"I said that you would end up in this court [if you failed to stop ethnic cleansing] and here you are," he said in a "told you so" manner.

To the amusement of the public gallery, Mr Milosevic, who the presiding judge has repeatedly accused of making irrelevant speeches, complained that Lord Ashdown was too long-winded. "Could the witness please answer my questions and not make speeches," he told a glowering Lord Ashdown. "Could you please save us some time."

But Lord Ashdown insisted on relentlessly using Mr Milosevic's questions to denounce ethnic cleansing, reiterating that nothing could justify "the excessive force" and "scorched earth policy" of the Yugoslav army against the Kosovan Albanians, a tactic which visibly irked Mr Milosevic, who is conducting his own defence.

"You have repeated that several times. There's no need to repeat it in every question," the detainee moaned.

A statement from Lord Ashdown that the Kosovo Liberation Army was a terrorist organisation delighted the for mer dictator, however, and elicited a wry smile. "You are the first person sitting in this chair who does not deny that the KLA is a terrorist organisation," he crowed.

And that, he said, meant that Lord Ashdown was, in effect, agreeing that the behaviour of the Yugoslav forces was entirely legitimate. "So where's the problem?" Mr Milosevic asked, causing the public gallery to collapse in laughter.

The peer, a former marine, repeatedly confronted Mr Milosevic with his alleged crimes. "The British government has never used tanks, artillery, looting and burning to drive people out of their homes, and if we did we would be before this court," he said.

Seeing his chance, Mr Milosevic tried to confront Lord Ashdown over the behaviour of the British army in Northern Ireland, until he was silenced by an increasingly impatient judge.

Lord Ashdown laughed incredulously when faced with questions from Mr Milosevic which he clearly considered ludicrous. Mr Milosevic in turn did his best to belittle Lord Ashdown.

"Is it customary", he asked "for the leader of a small opposition party to visit a region where there is a war on 10 times a year?"

Mr Milosevic claimed that the west had wanted to aggravate the Kosovo crisis in order to pave the way for the occupation of Yugoslavia "by foreign powers".

That, said Lord Ashdown, was nonsense. "I've heard some fantastic conspiracy theories, but this takes the biscuit," he said. "It's so far-fetched I can't even believe you brought it up."

Meanwhile Momcilo Perisic, Serbia's deputy prime minister, was yesterday being held by Yugoslav military police on suspicion of passing documents to the US which could help to convict Mr Milosevic.

The former general, who served in the Balkan wars, faces possible charges of espionage after being arrested on Thursday night in a Belgrade restaurant. A US diplomat was held for 15 hours, then released. The US embassy said it would formally protest.

Mr Perisic was chief of staff of the Yugoslav army in the early stages of the wars in Croatia and Bosnia and a serving general when Serb troops rampaged through Kosovo in 1998. Mr Milosevic sacked him on the eve of Nato air strikes.