THE HAGUE, Mar 11 (Reuters) Slobodan Milosevic -- branded the ''butcher of the Balkans'' for the wars that tore Yugoslavia apart in the 1990s -- was found dead in his cell today, just months before his trial was expected to conclude.
''Milosevic was found lifeless on his bed in his cell,'' the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague said in a statement.
The court said a medical officer confirmed that the 64-year-old former Yugoslav president -- who suffered from a heart condition and high blood pressure -- was dead, adding the Dutch police and a coroner had launched an inquiry.
A tribunal spokeswoman said there was no indication Milosevic had committed suicide. She said the trial -- which has already lasted four years -- would end now he was dead.
Milosevic rose to the top of Yugoslav politics in the power vacuum left by the 1980 death of post-World War Two Yugoslav dictator Marshal Tito. Elected Serbian president in 1990, he ruled with an iron grip until his overthrow in 2000.
''With the death of Milosevic, one of the main actors, if not the main actor, in the Balkan wars of the late 20th century has left the scene,'' French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy told reporters, adding Milosevic had died of natural causes.
Milosevic was charged with 66 counts of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo as he sought to carve out a ''Greater Serbia'' as Yugoslavia broke up in the 1990s. He dismissed the trial and refused to plead.
The charges against him included involvement in the siege of Sarajevo during the 1992-95 Bosnia war and the 1995 massacre of 8,000 Muslims in the UN ''safe area'' of Srebrenica, Europe's worst single atrocity since World War Two.
Milosevic's ill health had repeatedly interrupted his trial that started in February 2002 and had been expected to end this year. Last month, the court rejected Milosevic's bid to go to Russia for medical treatment, noting the trial was almost over.
His was the second death at the detention centre within a week after former rebel Croatian Serb leader Milan Babic committed suicide on March 5. A former ally of Milosevic already convicted for war crimes, Babic was a key witness against the former Yugoslav president.
LONG TRIAL It was Europe's most significant war crimes trial since top Nazis were tried in Nuremberg. Milosevic's death will raise questions over supervision at the detention centre and stoke criticism that the proceedings were too long and the charges too unwieldy compared with the one-year life of Nuremberg.
Carla del Ponte, chief prosecutor, told Swiss television Milosevic's death had come as the trial was almost finished and, based on the evidence, he would have been convicted.
MORE REUTERS KD VP0010