Belgrade court sentences West leaders to 20 years in prison

A Yugoslav court has sentenced Presidents Clinton and Chirac and Mr Tony Blair to 20 years in prison for war crimes, together…

A Yugoslav court has sentenced Presidents Clinton and Chirac and Mr Tony Blair to 20 years in prison for war crimes, together with 11 other Western politicians and NATO officials tried in absentia.

The court ordered "wanted" circulars to be issued for all 14 men, who are also held liable for the cost of their trial.

Applause rang through the audience as the names of the defendants were read out. Besides the French, US and British leaders, the list included Chanceller Gerhard Schroder, the NATO European commander, Gen Wesley Clarke, and the alliance's secretary general, Mr Javier Solana.

The British Foreign Secretary, Mr Robin Cook, and the former Defence Secretary, Mr George Robertson, were also charged and sentenced. The charges included crimes against humanity, initiating an aggressive war, using illegal weapons (such as cluster bombs) and violating the territorial sovereignty of Yugoslavia.

Eight hundred people died in the bombing, including about 500 civilians, and Allied bombs destroyed much of Serbia's infrastructure. The sentence raises the intriguing possibility that if any of the 14 visited Yugoslavia they would face arrest under federal law, even if the opposition wins the elections next Sunday. Mr Stevan Lilic, a law professor, said: "Technically speaking, it means that if Tony Blair were to come to Belgrade today, he would be arrested."

A Western diplomat dismissed the trial, saying: "The whole thing is quite clearly an election stunt and we haven't been paying any attention to it." Asked about problems for politicians visiting in the future, he said: "I think when we have a normal and democratic government in Yugoslavia, this trial will just be history."

Members of a group seeking to monitor elections told journalists yesterday they had found a completed ballot slip containing a vote for President Slobodan Milosevic. A spokesman for the Centre for Free Elections and Democracy said they were concerned that many other similar papers were in circulation. Last night the US Secretary of State, Ms Madeleine Albright, accused President Milosevic of planning to "steal" the elections.

Christian Jennings adds from Pristina:

NATO peacekeepers in Kosovo will step up security in case of outbreaks of violence during the Yugoslav elections.

"We will heighten security in high-risk areas, but Kfor and the UN will not provide security for election-related materials," said Dr Bernard Kouchner, Kosovo's UN civil administrator.

President Milosevic will serve out his original four-year term - "until mid-2001", regardless of the results of the election, the federal Prime Minister, Mr Momir Bulatovic, said. Opponents of Mr Milosevic had expressed concern that constitutional changes he pushed through parliament in July to pave the way for the vote left the timing of a possible handover of power uncertain. The statement made the authorities' intentions clear.