Slobodan Milosevic claimed a day before his death that he risked being poisoned, his legal advisor said Sunday, fueling swirling rumors over the demise of the former Yugoslav leader while on trial for war crimes.
A Milosevic portrait with a mourning ribbon at the Socialist Party headquarters in Belgrade
Shortly before doctors began an autopsy on the body, Zdenko Tomanovic, who advised Milosevic during his trial over more than four years, read from a letter the ex-president had written Friday to the Russian embassy.
"'They would like to poison me. I'm seriously concerned and worried'," he quoted Milosevic as writing.
"In the letter he wrote about a medical report that he got that showed that there were strong drugs in his system only used for treating leprosy or tuberculosis," said Tomanovic.
Milosevic was found dead in his prison bed Saturday at the tribunal in The Hague, where he was being judged for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity over the 1990s Balkan wars that killed more than 200,000 people.
Hardcore loyalists to the man branded the "Butcher of the Balkans" accused the UN court of responsibility for his death, some even laying accusations of murder by poisoning.
Suicide not ruled out
Chief war crimes prosecutor Carla Del Ponte dismissed such allegations as "rumors" and said she could not rule out the possibility that the 64-year-old had committed suicide.
Carla Del Ponte, prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia
"We must now wait for the results of the autopsy to see the cause of death but we have no choice (but) between a normal natural death and suicide," she told a news conference.
Last month, the judges denied a request from Milosevic to undergo medical treatment in Moscow, saying he could be treated by his Russian doctors in The Hague. Milosevic suffered from high blood pressure and heart problems.
Autopsy on Sunday
An autopsy started in the afternoon in a Dutch forensic institute and was expected to last several hours, UN war tribunal spokesman Christian Chartier told AFP. "It is unlikely that the results will be known today (Sunday)," he added.
A toxicological examination of the body was also being conducted.
Fausto Pocar, president of the UN war crimes tribunal, said the autopsy, also attended by Serbian government medical experts, was required by Dutch law to establish cause of death.
Milosevic in the court room
Milosevic had been on trial since February 2002 on more than 60 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. He also faced genocide charges for the 1992-95 Bosnian conflict, notably the Srebrenica massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys -- the biggest single atrocity in Europe since World War II.
His death was announced just six days after the suicide in the same prison of his former ally, 50-year-old Croatian Serb ex-leader Milan Babic, who had admitted crimes against humanity during the 1991-95 war in Croatia.
Del Ponte said it was "a great pity for justice" that Milosevic died before a verdict could be given in his trial.
She said it was now more urgent than ever to arrest other most wanted war crimes fugitives: former Bosnian Serb army chief Ratko Mladic and the wartime political leader of the Bosnian Serbs, Radovan Karadzic.
Survivors of the Srebrenica massacre said Milosevic had cheated justice but Serbian newspapers lashed out at the tribunal itself, accusing it of murder.
"The Hague killed Milosevic," blared the front pages of both Press and Glas Javnosti, against black backgrounds bearing large portrait pictures.
Supporters pay tribute
Dozens of hardcore supporters queued to pay tribute in front of his party seat in central Belgrade, where a large photograph of Milosevic and a book of condolences were laid on a table in the entrance hall.
"Slobo, Serbia has died with you," said a written message placed nearby.
Milosevic "did not die, he was murdered in The Hague prison," said senior party official Ivica Dacic, describing his death as an "irreparable loss" to the country.
Elsewhere in Belgrade, his death added a haunting poignancy to a ceremony marking the slaying three years ago of Zoran Djindjic (photo), the reformist Serbian prime minister who had sent him to face justice.
In Bijeljina, in the Bosnian Serb entity Republika Srpksa, candles were lit near a monument where posters of Milosevic were plastered. "Heroes never die" and "We love you," read the captions.
Milosevic's family were divided over where he should be laid to rest, with his wife Mira -- herself a former powerful political figure, but now facing an arrest warrant if she returns to Serbia -- reportedly wanting burial in Russia where she now lives.
Brother Borislav and daughter Marija said he should be buried in Belgrade. "It has not been decided. His family -- his wife and son -- are taking the decision," Borislav Milosevic told AFP.