Slobodan Milosevic, finally allowed to speak in court, defended his actions during the Balkan wars and accused the U.N. war crimes tribunal Wednesday of an "evil and hostile attack" against him.

The former Yugoslav leader asked the tribunal to free him immediately, but said he would return to face trial. "This is a battle I will not miss," he said.

Often waving and pointing his finger at the prosecutors and judges, Milosevic spoke for nearly the full 30 minutes allocated to the defense during a hearing on whether the three indictments against him should be joined in one trial.

During five earlier appearances before a three-judge trial court, Milosevic was silenced every time he sought to give a statement. Judge Richard May repeatedly turned off his microphone when the defendant refused to be quiet, saying the pretrial hearings were not the place for political speeches.

But Judge Claude Jorda, heading Wednesday's five-man appellate panel, ruled that Milosevic should be allowed to speak, prompting him to comment that "this is the first time I've not been interrupted."

Milosevic, whose first trial is scheduled to begin Feb. 12, did not address the motion, but used the opportunity to give his view of the decade of turmoil in the former Yugoslavia.

He called the long list of charges against him "abnormal and nonsensical," and said his goal was to protect Serbs and bring peace as soon as possible to the troubled republics of Yugoslavia.

"I would call this an evil and hostile attack aimed at justifying the crimes committed against my country," he said of the indictments against him. Putting him on trial was "an attempt to turn the victim into the culprit."

Milosevic was ousted from power in 2000 and brought to The Hague for trial last June. He faces a total of 66 charges of war crimes spanning nearly a decade of conflict in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo.

He could face life imprisonment if found guilty of any charge.

"I want to be freed. I want you to set me free," he told the court, promising to return to face the accusations.

Milosevic has previously rejected the court's legitimacy or its authority to try him, charging that the tribunal established in 1993 was a tool of the western NATO alliance that fought him.

Chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte asked the appellate bench to reconsider the tribunal's refusal to hold a single trial on three indictments, saying Milosevic's plan to create a greater Serbia underpinned all his crimes during the Balkan wars.

"They are one strategy, one scheme" to create a greater Serbia by "forced and violent expulsion of the non-Serbian population," Del Ponte said.

She said the prosecution would be ready to begin as scheduled in two weeks, starting with Kosovo and later focusing on Croatia and Bosnia.

The prosecution said it intended to call several former insiders of the Milosevic regime, and feared those officials would not be able to return to The Hague to testify more once if the trials were held separately.

"Typically, they are high-level witnesses who can give direct evidence of what he was doing," said deputy prosecutor Geoffrey Nice.

Del Ponte told the appellate court that the trial judges had erred in concluding that Kosovo should remain separate from Croatia and Bosnia because it "did not form the same transaction."

Milosevic was the mastermind of the plan to create a "greater Serbian state dominated by Belgrade," she said. "The common denomination of all these crimes, and this must not be forgotten, was forced expulsion."

He was accused of 32 counts of war crimes in Croatia and five in Kosovo, but the Bosnia indictment is the only one to include genocide, the most serious war crime in the statute books.