Slobodan Milosevic refused to plead Tuesday to charges of genocide against Bosnian Muslims and Croats, calling the allegations absurd and portraying himself as a peacemaker in Bosnia.

As in previous indictments, the U.N. war crimes tribunal entered a plea of innocent on his behalf.

"This miserable text is the ultimate absurdity. I should be given credit for peace in Bosnia, not war," Milosevic said when asked if he were guilty or innocent.

For more than an hour, he sat impassively, often looking around the courtroom, as the indictment was read in his native Serbian language.

The indictment charges that Milosevic "exercised effective control or substantial influence" over the political officials and military officers who committed "the widespread killing of thousands of Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats."

Thousands were held in detention "calculated to bring about the partial physical destruction of those groups, namely through starvation, contaminated water, forced labor, inadequate medical care and constant physical and psychological assault," the indictment said.

Taken together, the lengthy list of criminal acts during the 1992-1995 Bosnian war constitute genocide -- a planned and carefully executed scheme to liquidate or deport the entire non-Serb population of parts of Bosnia, the prosecutors say.

It is third and final indictment against him for his 13 years in power in the former Yugoslavia, during which he is accused of instigating and conducting a decade of ethnic war.

Milosevic has persistently rejected the legitimacy of the U.N. court and has refused to cooperate, alleging it is a political tool of the NATO alliance.

"The responsibility for the war in Bosnia lies with the (Western) powers and their agents, not in Bosnia and not with Serbs, Serb people or Serb policy," Milosevic said before presiding Judge Richard May cut him short.

The Bosnia indictment is the first to charge him with genocide, and is the most serious challenge since Serbian authorities transferred him to The Hague for trial on June 28.

The 38-page document links Milosevic to dozens of execution sites, scores of detention facilities where inmates were beaten and sexually assaulted, and the killing of more than 8,600 Bosnians.

Milosevic has been charged with 29 counts of genocide, complicity to commit genocide, crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions and violations of the laws or customs of war -- every crime in the tribunal's statute.

To substantiate their case, prosecutors hope to call other members of what they call a "joint criminal enterprise" responsible for the ethnic cleansing of the region in an attempt to form a Serb state.

Two leading Serb political officials awaiting trial on genocide charges, Biljana Plavsic and Momcilo Krajisnik, could provide incriminating evidence against Milosevic.

Prosecutor Geoffrey Nice told the court up to 30 "high-level insiders" may testify against Milosevic, among a total of nearly 400 prosecution witnesses.

The prosecutors asked the three-judge court to expedite the proceedings by joining the three indictments -- a total of 66 counts of war crimes -- in a single trial. They argued that Milosevic operated under "a common strategy or plan" in all three conflicts.

If approved, the joinder motion will eliminate duplicate testimony and overlapping evidence. But it also will delay the start of the first trial, for Kosovo, which had been scheduled for Feb. 12. Prosecutors said they would be ready for trial "by the summer" of 2002.

Prosecutors gained their first genocide conviction in August. In a case that could be a precedent in the Milosevic trial, Bosnian Serb general Radislav Krstic was sentenced to 46 years in prison for deeds committed by his subordinates.

Though he was not convicted for directly killing anyone, he was found guilty of "command responsibility." In a direct reference to Krstic's superiors, including Milosevic, the tribunal concluded that "someone else probably decided to order the execution."