THE HAGUE, Netherlands – Former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic portrayed himself as the victim as he began his defense against war crime charges Thursday, describing his role in the Balkans wars as a defense against domestic terrorism.
Moreover, he denied having knowledge of prison camps in Bosnia where ethnic cleansing against thousands of Muslims and Croats took place.
Milosevic, 60, faces 66 counts of genocide and other war crimes. Each count carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. His is the most prominent war crimes trial since military tribunals tried the leaders of Nazi Germany and Japan after World War II.
Prosecutors accuse Milosevic of orchestrating the deportation of millions of non-Serbs and the killing of hundreds of thousands more during the wars in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo, in a brutal campaign to entrench his own personal power.
Milosevic launched his defense with the war in the Serb province of Kosovo, the first of three indictments against him. He rejected as "a terrible fabrication" accusations that Serb military forces expelled hundreds of thousands of Kosovar Albanians, and said they in fact fled from the Kosovo Liberation Army and NATO's bombing campaign against Yugoslavia.
"When people were fleeing from these places of conflict, this is called deportation," he said. "They want to make me accountable for the crimes they perpetrated themselves," he said.
The 78-day NATO air campaign in 1999 eventually forced Yugoslav forces to abandon the drive against ethnic Albanians rebelling against Milosevic's regime.
He displayed a series of gruesome photographs of refugees killed in the NATO bombing of a refugee convoy on April 14, 1999. NATO said the strike, which Yugoslav officials said killed 75 people, was a mistake caused by the misidentification of the convoy.
Photo after photo showed burned corpses, severed body parts, lifeless girls and old women lying beside destroyed tractors and trailers.
"They were all peasants, farmers, mothers and daughters," Milosevic said. "They were intentionally targeted," Milosevic claimed.
Then photographs flashed onto the courtroom monitors of the destruction of villages, bridges, and railroads. "Only Nazis could have thought of such bombing of villages," Milosevic said. The bombing's aim, he said was "to throw Serbia back to the Stone Age."
Milosevic mentioned the U.S. war on terror in his defense that Serb forces were operating against terrorists within the country.
"America crosses the globe to fight against terrorism, in Afghanistan, a case in point. Right the other side of the world, and that is considered to be logical and normal. Whereas here the struggle against terrorism in the heart of one's own country, one's own home, is considered to be a crime."
He added: "Our defense was a heroic defense against the aggression of the NATO pact."
He said he had given strict orders that civilians should not be harmed, but indirectly admitted some individuals may have committed crimes.
"I'm not trying to say that some individuals did not do this, but the police and army defended the country courageously and honorably," he said.
Directly responding to some of the prosecution's most telling charges, he said it was well known that he had protested to the Bosnian Serb leadership over the shelling of Sarajevo during its 1992-1995 siege. "They promised they would not shell civilian houses," Milosevic said.
He also claimed to know nothing about the prison camps in Bosnia. "I didn't know because I could not believe that people could do such things," Milosevic said, referring to the Nazi-style camps where thousands of Muslims and Croats were tortured and killed.
When he asked the Bosnian Serb leaders, "they said there were no camps, and I think they did not know about them either. We were all deceived," he said.
Pointing his finger and thumping his desk, Milosevic, the first head of state brought to trial before an international tribunal, accused Western nations of acting to break up Yugoslavia and making up atrocities blamed on him.
He spoke in Serbian and with animation in an address that appeared directed as much toward the television audience in Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic, as toward the three international judges trying him.
Milosevic, who has refused to appoint an attorney, asked the court to release him from detention so he could better prepare his case.
On Thursday, Milosevic again denounced the trial as illegal. "You basically have nothing," he told the prosecutors. "You just want to invent things. This is a political trial, and this has nothing to do with the law itself."
Milosevic described the court as an instrument of Western powers he says deliberately undermined the Yugoslav federation by encouraging Bosnia to secede in 1992.
"Your bosses broke up Yugoslavia," he said. "They pushed Bosnia into a civil war. The Serbs did not start the war. It is nonsensical to accuse the wrong side," he said.
He said the case aimed to prosecute the whole Serbian people. "Our citizens stand accused, citizens who lent their massive support to me," he said.
The statements were a continuation of Milosevic's undermining of the court's legitimacy. On Wednesday, he demanded that the trial judges respond to his pretrial motions that the court is illegal and that his extradition to The Hague in June violated the Yugoslav constitution.
Judge Richard May responded that the court had already rejected his motions and called Milosevic's views on the court "irrelevant."
Milosevic's remarks followed chilling case-by-case accounts by the prosecution of horrors in the former Yugoslavia, a grisly taste of the testimony expected to be given by a parade of survivors in an exhaustive trial that could last two years.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.