THE HAGUE, Netherlands -- The International War Crimes Tribunal issued an arrest warrant yesterday for President Slobodan Milosevic, charging him and other senior Yugoslav officials with crimes against humanity in Kosovo, including the murder, forced deportation and persecution of ethnic Albanians.
The charges -- including the forced deportation of 740,000 ethnic Albanians from Kosovo this year and the murder of more than 340 identified Albanians -- in effect branded the Yugoslav government as a criminal regime.
In private, Clinton administration officials said the indictment is likely to cripple efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis. Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, viewed in recent weeks as the most likely candidate to succeed in negotiations, would be extremely reluctant to go to Belgrade to deal with someone indicted as a war criminal, a colleague said.
The tribunal's action also complicates the attainment of NATO's war objectives. At a minimum, Milosevic's incentive to bring a quick end to the war no longer seems clear, for peace would bring him no protection from arrest.
Announcing the indictment of Milosevic and four of his top associates, chief prosecutor Louise Arbour said arrest warrants for the five had been served on all member states of the United Nations and Switzerland.
The others accused in the 42-page indictment are Milan Milutinovic, the Serbian president, long a close aide to Milosevic; Dragoljub Ojdanic, the chief of staff of the Yugoslav armed forces and former commander of an army corps active in eastern Bosnia; Nikola Sainovic, the deputy prime minister of Yugoslavia, and Vlajko Stojilkovic, the minister of internal affairs.
The charges made it almost impossible for Milosevic to travel abroad, rendered his signature on any international document deeply suspect and made negotiation with him awkward -- but not illegal -- for any state respecting the United Nations charter.
"Although the accused are entitled to the benefit of the presumption of innocence until they are convicted, the evidence upon which this indictment was confirmed raises serious questions about their suitability to be the guarantors of any deal, let alone a peace agreement," Arbour said.
But the 52-year-old Canadian judge, who was appointed to the tribunal in 1996, added that she did not expect politicians to tell her how to do her work, and said: "I have no intention of telling them how to do their work."
`No deal, no amnesty'
In response to the indictment, the British foreign secretary, Robin Cook, said: "There can be no deal, no amnesty for war crimes."
He added that there would be no negotiation on NATO's objectives, even if "we have to deal with those who can implement those objectives."
President Clinton formally backed the indictment. Behind the scenes, however, tribunal officials said the United States had expressed serious concerns about the timing when informed a few days ago that the indictment was imminent.
"The objections to our timing were quite strong, and it took a while for everyone to understand," one tribunal official said. "We had to patiently explain to Washington and some other capitals that there was no alternative to our procedure."
Strobe Talbott, the deputy secretary of state, is deeply involved in Russian-led diplomatic efforts to end the war. The failure of these efforts would inevitably lead to greater pressure for a ground invasion of Kosovo by NATO forces, a step that Clinton opposes.
A radically changed view
The Clinton administration made clear that contacts with Milosevic would continue for the moment. Still, it is evident that the Western view of the Serbian leader has changed radically. Long seen as an unsavory strongman who could also be a de facto ally, as he was in the negotiation of a Bosnian peace, Milosevic now appears to be viewed as the central obstacle to Balkan peace.
Court officials said this change in the Western attitudes opened the way for what amounted to a remarkably fast indictment by allowing Arbour access to intelligence and other information long denied to her by Western governments.
Arbour signed the indictment Saturday and it was confirmed as valid by a tribunal judge Monday. Western governments were informed of the court's action between those days, but wider disclosure was delayed to allow a United Nations mission to Yugoslavia to leave the country.
The indictment drew a tough portrait of the Yugoslav leader's acts, seeking to demonstrate Milosevic's personal criminal responsibility for ordering, planning, instigating, executing or aiding and abetting crimes committed in Kosovo this year.
Arbour said that the role of Milosevic in Bosnia, where more than 750,000 Muslims were driven from their homes by the Serbs in 1992, was still under investigation.