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Friday, 26 April, 2002, 14:20 GMT 15:20 UK
Milosevic army chief pleads not guilty
General Dragoljub Ojdanic at the Hague tribunal
General Ojdanic maintains he has done nothing wrong
The former head of the Yugoslav army has pleaded not guilty of crimes against humanity in Kosovo at the war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

Dragoljub Ojdanic, former army chief of staff
Nikola Sainovic, former Yugoslav deputy prime minister
Milan Martic, former Croatian Serb rebel leader
Mile Mrksic, former army officer
Vladimir Kovacevic, former army officer
Momcilo Gruban, former Bosnian Serb prison guard

General Dragoljub Ojdanic, who led the army during the 1998-1999 conflict against Kosovo Albanian insurgents, is the first senior Serbian figure to have surrendered voluntarily to the tribunal.

He is also the most senior war crimes suspect to appear there since former president Slobodan Milosevic made his debut in February.

"I plead not guilty," said the 60-year-old officer, standing with his chest puffed out and his back perfectly straight.

He had said while leaving Belgrade on Thursday that his conscience was clear and he felt like a "hero".

The general added that he had nothing to say which could incriminate Mr Milosevic, extradited against his will last June.

General Ojdanic faces five counts of crimes against humanity and violations of the laws or customs of war relating to the Kosovo campaign, in which thousands of people were killed and hundreds of thousands driven from their homes.

His voluntary surrender has been hailed by Washington, where the State Department praised his "courageous decision and his show of leadership".

Mr Ojdanic was the first of 23 people ordered last week to surrender by the Yugoslav Government to turn himself in.

US pressure

General Ojdanic has joined 40 other suspects held at the special UN unit in Scheveningen, near the tribunal, but hopes he might be released pending trial, as other suspects who have surrendered voluntarily have been.

Serbian President Milan Milutinovic
Serbian President Milan Milutinovic is also on the wanted list

Only six of the 23 people named last week have said they will surrender voluntarily. They include former Yugoslav Deputy Prime Minister Nikola Sainovic, who, like General Ojdanic, is indicted on the same charge sheet as Mr Milosevic.

Two of the most wanted suspects, Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadzic and his military chief Ratko Mladic remain at large.

Yugoslavia is under immense financial pressure from the United States, which froze economic aid at the end of March after the country failed to meet a deadline to start handing over suspects to the UN tribunal.

While welcoming General Ojdanic's surrender on Thursday, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said much remained to be done if the freeze on the $40m in assistance was to be lifted.

"While we see this as a positive step, both on the part of the individuals answering the charges as well as on the part of the government of Yugoslavia for facilitating this, at this point we have not made any further decisions with regard to certification."

In addition to the continued surrender of suspects, Mr Boucher said the State Department wanted Belgrade to open up its military archives to investigators from the tribunal who are keen to use the material as evidence.

See also:

15 Apr 02 | Europe
Profile: Dragoljub Ojdanic
18 Apr 02 | Europe
Belgrade's shot in the dark
14 Apr 02 | Europe
Top Serb suspect dies
13 Apr 02 | Europe
Hague suspects go to ground
01 Mar 02 | Europe
The race to catch Karadzic
12 Mar 02 | Europe
The Hague looms over the Balkans
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