LONDON -- With rumors rife about the circumstances of Slobodan Milosevic's death, Dutch authorities conducted an eight-hour autopsy yesterday and invited the government of Serbia to send a pathologist to observe.
Preliminary results, announced last night, indicated that Milosevic died of a heart attack, but earlier in the day, Carla Del Ponte, the war crimes tribunal's chief prosecutor, said she could not rule out the possibility that Milosevic had committed suicide.
"It's possible," she said at a news conference in The Hague, adding that "until we have precise facts and results, it's absolutely rumors."
Del Ponte said she expected a more detailed report within a few days.
Milosevic, 64, who was on trial for war crimes in The Hague, was found dead in his cell Saturday morning.
In Belgrade, the Serbian capital, the rumor mill was cranking out a sinister tune.
"He was poisoned," insisted Zelijko Mitrovic, 58, an economist. "Somebody there was poisoning him. It would be easy for them to put something in his food."
Mitrovic said he believed the tribunal wanted to silence Milosevic "because he was winning his case, and the truth was coming out."
Zdenko Tomanovic, a lawyer who was assisting Milosevic's defense, fueled those suspicions yesterday when he told reporters that the former Yugoslav leader recently confided his fears that someone was trying to poison him.
Tomanovic, who visited Milosevic on Friday, the day before his death, said the Serb leader had complained that his latest medical reports indicated the presence of "strong drugs in his system only used for treating leprosy or tuberculosis."
The lawyer showed reporters a hand-written letter to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in which Milosevic claimed he was being poisoned.
Six days before Milosevic's death, Milan Babic, leader of Serb rebels in Croatia and a convicted war criminal, committed suicide in the same prison. Babic had provided key testimony against Milosevic and was back in The Hague testifying in another case.
"I suffered under Milosevic and I don't feel any regret at his death, but I think that even the worst criminal has the right to proper medical treatment," said Marija Darijevic, a Belgrade lawyer.
Milosevic had a heart condition and high blood pressure. His poor health slowed the pace of his trial, and doctors monitoring his care limited the number of hours he was permitted to appear in court.
In December, Milosevic petitioned the tribunal to allow him to travel to Moscow to seek medical treatment. The tribunal declined, saying that adequate care was available in the Netherlands.
Darijevic disagreed. "The fact that The Hague didn't let him go to Russia for treatment and that he died two days later - it makes The Hague prison look like some kind of house of torture," she said.
Milosevic's trial, which began in Feb. 2003, was due to conclude in a few weeks. A verdict was expected before the end of the year.
Milosevic was charged with war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. Legal experts who have followed the case said there were some doubts that the prosecution had proven its case on the most serious charge, genocide.
Del Ponte, however, said she had been confident of a conviction.
"It's a great pity for justice that the trial will not be completed and no verdict will be rendered," she said. "It deprives the victims of the justice they need and deserve."
She also said that Milosevic's death made it "more urgent than ever" for Serbian authorities to arrest Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadzic and his top military commander, Gen. Ratko Mladic, the last two major figures of that era who remain at large.
Funeral plans for Milosevic remain up in the air. Many of his diehard supporters in Serbia are calling for a state funeral, but senior officials in the Serbian government have little sympathy for the disgraced former leader and are fearful of the reaction his return would provoke. Older brother Borislav Milosevic, a former diplomat who lives in Moscow, has said the funeral should be in Serbia. But Milosevic's wife and son, who also live in Moscow, are wanted on criminal charges by Serbian authorities and could face arrest if they returned to Serbia.
Tom Hundley writes for the Chicago Tribune