THE HAGUE – The biggest war crimes trial in Europe since Nuremberg opens on February 12 at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), when Slobodan Milosevic will be tried for his role in three Balkan conflicts. The man who led Serbia and later Yugoslavia as president from 1989 to October 2000 is the first head of state to be tried internationally for war crimes committed while in office. Milosevic is indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during three wars that tore the former Yugoslavia apart in the 1990s: Croatia from 1991 to 1995, Bosnia from 1992 to 1995, and Kosovo in 1998 and 1999. For the war in Bosnia, the bloodiest of the conflicts, he will also be tried for genocide. According to prosecutors, Milosevic single-mindedly followed a plan throughout that decade: to create a «Greater Serbia» linking all ethnic Serbs dispersed throughout the former Yugoslavia into one state. «The trial of Slobodan Milosevic is exceptional given the extent of the crimes, their geographic spread and time frame, but also because of his high responsibilities,» says ICTY spokesman Jim Landale. If the simple fact that the trial can take place, with the accused present, is already a victory for the tribunal and international justice, the way it will be conducted will be judged by history. «It’s the trial that can make or break the ICTY,» says Avril McDonald, a specialist in international law at the TMC Asser institute in The Hague, where the tribunal is based. Uncertainty still remains over how the trial will evolve. The first unknown factor is Milosevic’s attitude. Handed over to the ICTY by Serbian authorities at the end of June 2001, the former president has refused a lawyer to defend him in front of a court that he considers illegal and more recently described as an anti-Serb instrument of war. In hearings held so far, Milosevic has launched diatribes against NATO and the United States, accused the judges of being biased, and said the indictments filed by the chief prosecutor, Carla del Ponte, were «political pamphlets» written by a «stupid child.» Despite his objections to the tribunal and its staff, Milosevic says he would not miss the «coming battle» for anything in the world. He has outlined the path his defense will take and it is largely political, accusing in particular NATO of destabilizing the Serbian province of Kosovo, now under UN administration, in an effort to control the Balkans. Lawyers close to Milosevic say he intends to call witnesses including former US President Bill Clinton, former negotiator Richard Holbrooke, responsible for the Dayton plan that ended the war in Bosnia, and the US secretary of state from that time, Madeleine Albright. However he will have to convince the judges that those witnesses are relevant for the summons to be passed on to them. The second great unknown concerns the dossier against him. Apart from the charges and the number of witnesses expected, the prosecutor has revealed nothing about the evidence she plans to produce. Evidence from a group of 20 people close to Milosevic when he was president will be one key, particularly in demonstrating the chain of command back from those in the field to establish whether the former strongman was responsible for the deaths of thousands of civilians. Del Ponte has remained confident throughout, even over establishing genocide, the most difficult of charges to prove. Hundreds of dead birds, including about 300 pelicans, have been found by locals and wildlife group representatives over the last few days on the Evros River delta following last month’s heavy snowfall and icy temperatures, which hindered their access to food. The plight of the birds, which include pelicans and flamingos, has prompted residents of the village of Ferres, near the Turkish border, to call for a nationwide initiative to raise both awareness and the funds needed to feed the birds.