AMSTERDAM, Netherlands — Slobodan Milosevic, the former Yugoslav leader, who was branded “the butcher of the Balkans” and was on trial for war crimes after orchestrating a decade of bloodshed during the breakup of his country, was found dead Saturday in his prison cell. He was 64.
Milosevic, who suffered chronic heart ailments and high blood pressure, apparently died of natural causes and was found in his bed, the U.N. tribunal said, without giving an exact time of death.
He had been examined by doctors following his frequent complaints of fatigue or ill health that delayed his trial, but the tribunal could not immediately say when he last underwent a medical checkup. All detainees at the center in Scheveningen are checked by a guard every half hour.
The tribunal said Milosevic’s family had been informed of his death, which came nearly five years after he was arrested, then extradited to The Hague.
As questions were raised as to why the trial had dragged on for so long, a tribunal spokeswoman said there was no indication that Milosevic — who suffered from a heart condition and high blood pressure — committed suicide.
Milosevic’s lawyer Zdenko Tomanovic told reporters his client had feared he was being poisoned but the tribunal rejected a request for the autopsy to take place in Russia.
Relatives, victims cry foul
The tribunal faces questions from those who feel robbed of justice about why the trial had gone on so long compared with the one-year life of Nuremberg and the more limited scope of Saddam Hussein’s trial in Iraq.
Milosevic’s ill-health had repeatedly interrupted his trial. Last month, the court rejected his bid to go to Russia for medical treatment, noting the trial was nearly finished.
Milosevic's wife, Mirjana Markovic, who was often accused of being the power behind the scenes during her husband’s autocratic rule, has been in self-imposed exile in Russia since 2003. His son, Marko, also lives in Russia, and his daughter, Marija, lives in Serb-controlled half of Bosnia.
Borislav Milosevic, who lives in Moscow, blamed the U.N. tribunal for causing his brother’s death by refusing him medical treatment in Russia.
“All responsibility for this lies on the shoulders of the international tribunal. He asked for treatment several months ago, they knew this,” he told The Associated Press. “They drove him to this as they didn’t want to let him out alive.”
Milosevic asked the court in December to let him go to Moscow for treatment. But the tribunal refused, despite assurances from the Russian authorities that the former Yugoslav leader would return to the Netherlands to finish his trial.
Uncertain future for tribunal
The tribunal also faces questions over monitoring of inmates at its detention center because Milosevic’s death was the second within a week after the suicide of former rebel Croatian Serb leader Milan Babic.
His testimony in 2002 described a political and military command structure headed by Milosevic in Belgrade that operated behind the scenes.
A former ally of Milosevic already convicted for war crimes, Babic was a key witness against the former Yugoslav leader, accusing him of bringing shame on Serbs.
Normal detention center procedures mean inmates are checked every 30 minutes during the night.
U.N. chief prosecutor Carla del Ponte, due to hold a news conference in The Hague, said: “The death of Slobodan Milosevic, a few weeks before the completion of his trial, will prevent justice to be done in his case.”
But she said in a statement others must be punished for the crimes he was accused of and said six war crimes suspects still at large, including former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his military commander Ratko Mladic, must be arrested.
Accused of war crimes, genocide
Milosevic has been on trial since February 2002, defending himself against 66 counts of crimes, including genocide, in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. But the proceedings were repeatedly interrupted by Milosevic’s poor health and chronic heart condition.
He was accused of orchestrating a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing against non-Serbs during the collapse of the Yugoslav federation in an attempt to link Serbia with Serb-dominated areas of Croatia and Bosnia to create a new Greater Serbia.
Milosevic had spent much of the time granted to him by the U.N. court for his defense dealing with allegations of atrocities in Kosovo that took up just one-third of his indictment. He also faced charges of genocide in Bosnia for allegedly overseeing the slaughter of 8,000 Muslims from the eastern enclave of Srebrenica — the worst massacre on European soil since World War II.
The 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 President Bill Clinton as a witness.
Steven Kay, a British attorney assigned to represent Milosevic, said Saturday 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 British Broadcasting Corp.
Crushing blow to tribunal
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.
“It is a pity he didn’t live to the end of the trial to get the sentence he deserved,” Croatian President Stipe Mesic said.
The European Union 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.
Video: Remembering 'monster' A figure of beguiling charm and cunning ruthlessness, Milosevic was a master tactician who turned his country’s defeats into personal victories and held onto power for 13 years despite losing four wars that shattered his nation and impoverished his people.
Milosevic led Serbia, the dominant Yugoslav republic, into four Balkan wars during the 1990s. The secret of his survival was his uncanny ability to exploit what less adroit figures would consider a fatal blow.
He once described himself as the “Ayatollah Khomeini of Serbia,” assuring his prime minister, Milan Panic, that “the Serbs will follow me no matter what.” For years, they did — through wars which dismembered Yugoslavia and plunged what was left of the country into social, political, moral and economic ruin.
But in the end, his people abandoned him: first in October 2000, when he was unable to convince the majority of Yugoslavs that he had staved off electoral defeat by his successor, Vojislav Kostunica, and again on April 1, 2001, when he surrendered after a 26-hour standoff to face criminal charges stemming from his ruinous rule.
Rise to power
Milosevic was born Aug. 20, 1941, in Pozarevac, a drab factory town in central Serbia best known as the home of one of the country’s most notorious prisons.
His father was a defrocked Orthodox priest and sometime teacher of Russian. His mother was also a teacher. Both parents eventually committed suicide.
In high school, he met his future wife, the daughter of a wartime communist partisan hero. Markovic also was the niece of Davorjanka Paunovic, private secretary and mistress of Josip Broz Tito, the communist guerrilla leader who seized power in Yugoslavia at the end of World War II.
Milosevic became president of Serbia in 1989 elections widely considered rigged. His rise alarmed the other peoples of former Yugoslavia — Slovenes, Croats, Macedonians, Albanians and others — who feared that the hard-line nationalist would allow Serbs to dominate the country.
In 1991, Croatia and Slovenia declared their independence from Yugoslavia. Milosevic sent tanks to Slovenian borders, triggering a brief war that ended in Slovenia’s secession.
Serbs in Croatia, encouraged by Milosevic, took up arms. Milosevic responded by sending the Serb-led Yugoslav army to intervene, triggering a conflict that left at least 10,000 people dead and hundreds of Croatian villages and towns devastated before a U.N.-patrolled cease-fire was arranged in January 1992.
Three months later, Bosnia-Herzegovina declared its independence, too. Milosevic bankrolled the Bosnian Serb rebellion, triggering an even bigger war that killed an estimated 200,000 people before a U.S.-brokered peace agreement was reached at Dayton, Ohio, in 1995.
'Butcher of the Balkans'
During those conflicts, Yugoslavia was ostracized worldwide and the United States called Milosevic “The Butcher of the Balkans.” Strict international sanctions and government mismanagement devastated the economy and left its people impoverished.
Realizing that the conflicts could not continue, Milosevic agreed to the Dayton talks, accepting a deal that abandoned Croatia’s rebel Serbs, who were driven from their homes when the Croatian army recaptured almost all the land the Serbs had seized there in 1991.
The Dayton agreement also meant giving up the nationalist goal of a Serb state in Bosnia. Nevertheless, it bought Milosevic time and transformed his image from Balkan villain to benign peacemaker.
Milosevic’s term as Serbian president ended in 1997 and the constitution prevented him from running again. However, he exploited legal loopholes in the constitution to have parliament name him president of Yugoslavia, which by then included only the republics of Serbia and Montenegro.
It was the thorny problem of Kosovo, the majority Albanian province that had served as his springboard to power, which finally set the stage for his downfall. In February 1998, Milosevic sent troops to crush an ethnic Albanian uprising there.
The United States and its allies responded by imposing some of the sanctions that were lifted after the Bosnian war. In 1999, after Milosevic refused to sign a Western-dictated peace agreement at Rambouillet, France, NATO launched 78 days of punishing air strikes against Yugoslavia.
Milosevic refused to back down and instead ordered his troops to crack down on Kosovo Albanians even harder. More than 800,000 Albanians fled into neighboring Albania, Montenegro and Macedonia before Milosevic finally accepted a peace plan and handed over the province to the United Nations and NATO in June 1999.
Before the conflict ended, the U.N. tribunal indicted Milosevic and four of his top aides for war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in Kosovo. Milosevic became the first sitting head of state ever to be indicted for such crimes. Later, they broadened the charges against him to include genocide.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.