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Former Yugoslav President Milosevic Dies in His Cell

Slobodan Milosevic, for 13 years the dictatorial leader of Serbia and later Yugoslavia, and the person most directly associated with the brutal wars of Yugoslav secession, is dead.

Milosevic, 64, was found dead in his cell at The Hague, where for four years he had been on trial facing more than 60 counts of war crimes and genocide. His trial was interrupted repeatedly because of his poor health resulting from a heart condition and high blood pressure.

Defiant to the last, Milosevic insisted on representing himself, and denounced the U.N. tribunal as false.

Milosevic was a lawyer and banker before turning to politics. He was born in a town east of Belgrade, where his father and mother were teachers. Both eventually committed suicide. He came of age in the early 1960s when non-aligned, communist Yugoslavia under Marshal Jozip Broz Tito was at the height of its power.

Former Yugoslav diplomat Vladimir Matic, a professor of politics at America's Clemson University, attended law school in Belgrade with Milosevic.

"He was very ambitious, energetic, and I would say, already at that young age, manipulative and ruthless," he said.

After graduating from law school in 1964, Milosevic joined the communist party and gradually rose through its ranks. Deceptively charming and fluent in English, Milosevic held various government positions, and, in 1983, headed a major Yugoslav bank, but a year later, became communist party leader in the capital, Belgrade.

After Tito's death in 1980, Yugoslavia was ruled by a weak, rotating, eight-member presidency, comprised of the leaders of the country's six republics and two provinces. Ethnic and religious tension, suppressed in the multi-ethnic Yugoslav federation under Tito, surfaced in the 1980s, and Yugoslavia stagnated, amid hyperinflation and mounting friction among its constituent republics.

Milosevic became communist party chief in Serbia in 1986. A year later, he gained prominence by demanding that the province of Kosovo be stripped of its autonomy, and increased power be given to Serbs in the Albanian-majority territory.

In a 1999 interview, author and Balkans expert Laura Silber said the speech he delivered in Kosovo commemorating the Serbs' epic military loss to the Turks in 1387, catapulted Milosevic to power.

"This is where he really sets the wheels in motion beyond the party apparatus, to take control of the provinces of Vojvodina, to the north, and Kosovo - the mostly Albanian province - to the south," said Ms. Silber. "And that is how he began to make his bid to lead the former Yugoslavia. Because, what he really wanted then, was to become the next Josip Broz Tito."

In 1989, the year the Iron Curtain collapsed, Milosevic became president of Serbia. Now presenting himself as a hard-line Serb nationalist, Milosevic's increased power set off alarm bells throughout Yugoslavia.

In 1991, Slovenia and Croatia declared independence, triggering the start of what would be nearly a decade of the most barbaric warfare seen in Europe since the second world war, spreading to Bosnia-Herzegovina and later to Kosovo.

Vladimir Matic says Milosevic failed to understand how the end of the Cold War had changed global politics, and spelled the end to communist Yugoslavia. He says Milosevic's wars impoverished Serbia, and most of the former Yugoslavia.

"In the long-run, this is to be the legacy, as well as that Serbia, as part of the former Yugoslavia was about, in 1990, in its development - [it] was, perhaps, 15 years ahead of East European countries. And, all those former communist societies today are maybe 15 years ahead of Yugoslavia," said Mr. Matic.

As the 1990s progressed, and the wars spread from Croatia to Bosnia-Herzegovina and to Kosovo, Milosevic's grip on power tightened. During his 12 years in power, all of the wars he started were lost.

In 1999, when nearly three months of NATO bombing in defense of Kosovo's Albanians forced Serbian troops out of Kosovo, Milosevic was indicted for war crimes by the United Nations tribunal in the Hague.

In October 2000, a popular uprising forced Milosevic to accede defeat in elections, and a year later, a democratically elected government in Serbia sent Milosevic to The Hague for trial.

Richard Holbrooke, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, knew Milosevic well from hours of negotiating the Dayton peace accords that ended the Bosnian war. He calls Milosevic a "monster."

"Probably the worst leader, other than the communist leaders, in Europe since World War II," he said. "300,000, 2.5 million are homeless because of Slobodan Milosevic. He fought and lost four wars, then he lost his job, then his freedom, and went to The Hague, and, now, he has ended his days with some form of rough, incomplete justice in his cell in The Hague."

Milosevic suffered from a chronic heart condition. During his unfinished trial, he rejected counsel and defended himself. He described himself as misunderstood, and the last defender of a proud people who suffered what he called NATO aggression and Western-backed terrorism.

Milosevic was the first head of state to face an international war crimes court.