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Dirty laundry to air in Hague

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The war crimes trial of Slobodan Milosevic, still a year off due to the slow machinations of The Hague tribunal, promises to rattle many skeletons in many closets.

Lawyers for the first head of state to appear as a defendant before the U.N. court have made it clear they intend to embarrass Western governments and the United Nations for cutting deals with Milosevic when he was seen as the solution rather than the prime instigator of Balkan bloodshed.

Perhaps the biggest mistake of all was made by the United States in letting Milosevic sign the 1995 Dayton peace accord that ended Bosnia's war. By then he had already been nicknamed the Butcher of Belgrade. Not only had he started three wars — in Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia — he had also masterminded that modern-day variant of genocide known as "ethnic cleansing."

At the time, several Serb opposition leaders said the Americans were crazy to expect the Butcher to become a peacemaker. And former secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger warned the Clinton administration it was dealing with the "greatest unindicted war criminal of the Balkans."

But that was the key.

Milosevic had not been indicted yet and U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke, who crafted the Dayton accord, needed Serbia's president to sign for those who had been charged as war criminals, specifically Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his military commander, Ratko Mladic.

Dayton gave Milosevic respectability and allowed him to remain in office another five years — long enough to start a fourth war in Kosovo and engage in another round of ethnic cleansing against that province's Albanian majority. It was only then that Washington turned against him, leading to NATO's 1999 bombing of Serbia and Milosevic's subsequent indictment by the Hague tribunal.

Holbrooke may be asked to testify at the trial, as may former secretary of State Madeleine Albright. But they are not the only ones.

Milosevic's attorneys say they will also call three former British foreign secretaries — Lord Hurd, who opposed American plans to lift an arms embargo on Bosnia's Muslims; Lord Carrington, chief negotiator for the European Union in 1991-92; and Lord Owen, who together with U.S. envoy Cyrus Vance co-brokered a 1993 peace agreement that Milosivic failed to live up to.

Two U.N. secretaries-general, Boutros-Boutros Ghali and Kofi Annan, may be asked to testify about their dealings with Milosevic. And France will face some embarrassing revelations about secret collusion between its peacekeeping troops and Milosevic's regime, both in Bosnia and again during the Kosovo air campaign when NATO's bombing targets were repeatedly leaked to the Serbs.

The French, in fact, have not cooperated with the Hague tribunal, believing it to be dominated by an American political agenda. Their peacekeeping sector in Bosnia is believed to harbor 26 indicted war criminals, including Karadzic and Mladic, and they have repeatedly resisted attempts by commandos of Britain's Special Air Services to snatch the suspects in their zone.

In April, Karadzic even gave an interview to a Bosnian newspaper, saying he was not hiding and frequently visits Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital. He revealed, among other things, that he was writing an autobiography and boasted that it would win the Nobel Prize for literature.

Carla del Ponte, the outspoken chief prosecutor of the war crimes tribunal, calls it "scandalous" that Karadzic and Mladic remain free six years after their indictment. And she blames not only the French for protecting them but other NATO forces, especially the Americans, for being too timid to go after them for fear of taking casualties.

The Serbs too have been less than zealous in pursuing war criminals.

Although Milosevic's handover to The Hague has been hailed as a sign of Serb readiness to confront the blackest episodes of their past, it has more to do with barter than remorse — one has-been president in exchange for $1.3 billion in foreign aid pledged at a donors' conference in Brussels.

Many Serbs believe they are simply scapegoats for the West's own failure in allowing so many Balkan bloodbaths to go unpunished.

Holger Jensen is International Editor of the Rocky Mountain News. E-mail: hjens@aol.com