THE HAGUE — Barely 12 hours before he died, former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic sat in his small prison office amid stacks of court papers that smelled of cigarette smoke and coffee.
Milosevic looked weak as he worked with a former ally to prepare his defense against war crimes charges. His ears were ringing, and for the last three days he had felt particularly ill. He told his legal advisor, Zdenko Tomanovic, that he suspected he was being poisoned, a claim contradicted Friday by a preliminary toxicology report.
Milosevic hand-wrote a letter to the Russian Foreign Ministry outlining his allegation, and finished for the day soon afterward. That evening, he relaxed by playing remi, a favorite Serbian card game, with another war crimes suspect, Tomanovic said in an interview.
It was a typical moment in the U.N. detention center in the Netherlands, an incongruously peaceful, comfortable facility on the outskirts of The Hague where Croat, Muslim and Serb detainees, who fought to the death in the former Yugoslavia, formed a brotherhood of the accused.
As they played, Milosevic felt a stabbing pain in his chest. He asked his fellow inmate, whom Tomanovic declined to identify, whether he had a head of garlic, which is regarded in Serbian folk medicine as a natural healer. Then he asked for a glass of milk.
The inmate brought both, and at 8 p.m., Milosevic called his wife, Mirjana Markovic, in Moscow. He always called her when he rose in the morning and before his cell was locked at 8:30 at night, she said in an account published in a Belgrade newspaper.
"Sleep well, my darling," he told her. "I'll call you when I wake up tomorrow."
Between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. Saturday, Milosevic died in his bed, Tomanovic said. His body was discovered at 10:05 a.m.
Hard-line Serbian nationalists have said they believe Milosevic's claim that he was being poisoned. But the preliminary toxicology report released Friday by the Hague tribunal concluded that he was not. The tests found no trace of an antibiotic detected in tests done Jan. 12.
That drug, doctors said, could have undermined medicine Milosevic was taking for a heart condition.
Prosecutors had suggested that Milosevic took the drug clandestinely to worsen his health and bolster his case to be sent to Russia for treatment.
The death of the Serbian strongman was peaceful compared with those of many of the estimated 225,000 people who perished in the 1990s Balkan wars he helped orchestrate.
But lawyers, doctors and others who spent time with Milosevic during his last months portrayed him as a man who was hardly at peace. He knew he was not well. He sorely missed his wife, who was his closest friend and political confidant. He was racing to make his case in court -- and above all to Serbs back home.
When he died, Milosevic had just 40 hours of court time left to make his defense against 66 charges. But he had primarily dealt with just five, all of them involving Kosovo Albanians, a subject he knew played well at home. Many Serbs were ambivalent about the 1992-95 war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but they were much more attached to Kosovo, a province of Serbia with deep historical significance that has a large ethnic Albanian majority.
Serbian police and military action there in 1998 and 1999 killed about 10,000 ethnic Albanians, forced some 800,000 to flee to neighboring Albania and Macedonia, and led to a bombing campaign by the United States and allies against Serbia. Kosovo is now a U.N. protectorate, and its ethnic Albanian leadership is seeking independence.
Milosevic was determined to be exonerated or to prove that the court was irrevocably biased against Serbs.
"The story he continued to tell was that Serbia was the front line in the war on terror, and the reason that the West did not see it the same way is that the West had territorial designs on Serbia," said Allen Weiner, a professor of international law at Stanford University who worked closely with the court as legal advisor to the U.S. Embassy in The Hague.
During a courtroom appearance March 1, Milosevic was in typically combative form. He guided the testimony of a loyalist former Cabinet minister who addressed him as "Mr. President," and he spoke scornfully of European and American leaders as dishonest Serb haters. As he had throughout the trial, Milosevic jousted with the judges, who demanded to know the relevance of his diatribes against the Kosovo Liberation Army.
"It's not only a terrorist organization," he told an exasperated Judge Patrick Robinson. "It's also an organization through which most of the drugs going to Europe go. This is an organization that is involved in white slave trading too. This is a monster organization that became an ally of -- "
"Mr. Milosevic, that's your last question," Robinson declared.
And it was his last day in court. The trial went into recess to give Milosevic time to prepare for his next witness.