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Friday, 15 March, 2002, 17:22 GMT
Milosevic meets his match
Paddy Ashdown giving evidence at The Hague
Lord Ashdown dealt some bruises to Mr Milosevic
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By the BBC's John Silverman in The Hague

A gladiatorial combat in a court of law always produces a frisson of excitement. And even if the cross-examination of Lord Paddy Ashdown by the former Yugoslav President, Slobodan Milosevic, was largely short of fireworks, it had its fascination.

A soldier-turned politician, Paddy Ashdown is nevertheless under fire - whether in Northern Ireland or Westminster - so he was never going to be fazed by Mr Milosevic.

For once, Mr Milosevic, took some bruises from an encounter as well as dished them out - and that was worth watching

He was also hugely well-informed about the Balkans in general, and the peremptory slide of Kosovo into terror and ethnic cleansing, in particular.

Indeed, at one point, his adversary across the court acknowledged that wealth of knowledge.

Mr Milosevic was perhaps also wrong-footed by Lord Ashdown's readiness to concede that some of the instability and violence in Kosovo had been caused by the Kosovo Liberation Army.

Slobodan Milosevic
Mr Milosevic says he will call his own witnesses from among Western leaders

It is, of course, Mr Milosevic's contention that the tragedy of Kosovo was largely the fault of the KLA and Nato's draconian response in 1999, rather than that of the Serbs.

But this was perhaps the first occasion on which Mr Milosevic had met a witness as strong-minded, well-informed and used to public platforms as himself.

Not crucial

And, at times, it was Lord Ashdown who looked as if he was happy to bat away questions all day and long into the next and Mr Milosevic who seemed to be wearying of the exchanges.

A Yugoslav lawyer who is close to Mr Milosevic talked scornfully of a "protected" witness - in other words, a witness protected and cosseted by the judge who declared many of the defendant's questions irrelevant or speechifying.

It was true that Judge Richard May played a strong interventionist role during this contest - even at one point, suggesting a line of questioning to Mr Milosevic - to which the former president replied: "Yes, thank you for that."

In truth, this session was not crucial to the case against Mr Milosevic.

If the court accepts Lord Ashdown's conclusions about what he witnessed in Kosovo in 1998, it will certainly strengthen the argument that the Serbs were bent on domination of the ethnic Albanian majority and intentionally drove many from their homes.

But the link between that action and the president sitting in Belgrade still has to be firmly established.

And, of course, the indictment is time-limited to the events of the first six months of 1999, so anything that happened earlier is no more than a "back story".

But, for once, Mr Milosevic, took some bruises from an encounter as well as dished them out - and that was worth watching.

The BBC's Fiona Werge
"There were some irritable exchanges"
Lord Ashdown and Milosevic exchange words'
"I said ...some of the methods you used were illegal under international law"
See also:

12 Mar 02 | Europe
The Milosevic case: Timeline
01 Mar 02 | Country profiles
Country profile: Yugoslavia
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