AMSTERDAM, Netherlands — Slobodan Milosevic, the former Yugoslav leader who orchestrated the Balkan wars of the 1990s and was on trial for war crimes, was found dead in his prison cell near The Hague, the U.N. tribunal said Saturday.
Milosevic, 64, apparently died of natural causes, a tribunal press officer said. He was found dead in his bed at the U.N. detention center.
Milosevic has been on trial since February 2002, defending himself against 66 counts of crimes, including genocide, in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo.
The trial repeatedly was interrupted by Milosevic’s poor health and chronic heart condition. It was recessed last week until Tuesday to await his next defense witness.
His death comes less than a week after the star witness in his trial, former Croatian Serb leader Milan Babic, was found dead in the same prison. Babic, who was serving a 13-year prison sentence, committed suicide. He testified against Milosevic in 2002.
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, but always managed to emerge politically stronger. The secret of his survival was his uncanny ability to exploit what less adroit figures would consider a fatal blow.
Each time he would bounce back, skillfully reinventing himself in a series of political transformations — as a devout communist, a reform-minded nationalist, and again as a communist at a time when most of the world had abandoned Marxist ideology.
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.