Wartime Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, charged with the worst genocide in Europe since the Holocaust, testified on Monday that his people defended themselves against Islamic fundamentalists seeking to lay claim to Bosnia during the violent breakup of Yugoslavia.

In an opening defence statement at the U.N. war crimes tribunal, Mr. Karadzic denied any intention to expel non-Serbs from their homes, and said the Serb objective was to protect their own lives and property.

There was a core of Muslim leaders in Bosnia that was “plotting and conniving,” Mr. Karadzic told the U.N. war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. “They wanted Islamic fundamentalism and they wanted it from 1991,” he said, seeking to trace the origin of the full-scale civil war to the Muslims’ rejection of all power-sharing proposals.

“Our cause is just and holy,” Mr. Karadzic said as he began his two-day statement, relying only on sparse notes. “We have a good case. We have good evidence and proof.”

Mr. Karadzic, 64, faces two counts of genocide and nine other counts of murder, extermination, persecution, forced deportation and the seizing of 200 U.N. hostages. He faces possible life imprisonment if convicted.

Prosecutors say Mr. Karadzic orchestrated a campaign to destroy the Muslim and Croat communities in eastern Bosnia to create an ethnically pure Serbian state. The campaign included the 44-month siege of the capital Sarajevo and the torture and murder of hundreds of prisoners in inhuman detention camps, and culminated in the massacre of some 8,000 Muslim males in one horrific week in July 1995 in the Srebrenica enclave, the worst bloodbath in Europe since World War II.

Mr. Karadzic is the most important figure to be brought to trial since former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who died of a heart attack in 2006 before his case was concluded. Mr. Karadzic, President of the breakaway Bosnian Serb state, negotiated with diplomats, U.N. officials and peace envoys; he appeared often in the media; and he set the tone and pace of the 1992-95 Bosnian war that killed an estimated 100,000 people.

In his statement, Mr. Karadzic portrayed himself in the pre-war years as a conciliator who had been prepared to compromise on Serb ambitions to preserve the Yugoslav federation or to unite predominantly Bosnian Serb territory with Serbia.

“The Serbs were claiming their own territories, and that is not a crime,” he said. “It was never an intention, never any idea let along a plan, to expel Muslims and Croats” from the autonomous Republika Srbska.

In the run-up to the conflict, he said he repeatedly accepted peace proposals put forward at international conferences. He accused Bosnian Muslim leader Alija Izetbegovic of rejecting or reneging on them.

He charged that Serbs were the first victims of violence, killed by Muslims who “had blood up to their shoulders.” He said, “Their conduct gave rise to our conduct.”

Mr. Karadzic’s legal aide Peter Robinson told the judges he had submitted an appeal earlier on Monday against Friday’s court ruling denying Mr. Karadzic a delay in the continuation of the trial until June.

Mr. Karadzic, who is representing himself, boycotted the opening of his trial four months ago, claiming he had not had enough time to study more than 1 million pages of trial documents. Accusing Mr. Karadzic of obstructing the proceedings, the judges allowed him to continue his self defence, but appointed a veteran British Defence Attorney, Richard Harvey, to take over if Mr. Karadzic was found to again hinder the case.

Mr. Karadzic has refused to cooperate with Mr. Harvey, who was in the courtroom on Monday but not at the same table as Mr. Karadzic.

The Karadzic trial is likely to be one of the last cases handled by the U.N. court. The U.N. Security Council has asked the tribunal to wind up its cases and appeals and close down, leaving future trials to national courts in the former Yugoslav republics.

The court, set up in 1993, tribunal has indicted 161 political and military officials, of which 40 cases are still continuing. Two men are fugitives and could still be brought to trial in The Hague: Mr. Karadzic’s former top general, Ratko Mladic, and Croatian Serb leader Goran Hadzic.

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