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(photo credit: Associated Press)
Slobodan Milosevic was buried at dusk Saturday in the backyard of his family's estate in his hometown, after farewell ceremonies that drew tens of thousands of nationalist supporters.
As a cold drizzle fell, the coffin of the former Serbian leader - who died a week ago while on trial for presiding over some of Europe's worst atrocities since World War II - was lowered into the grave. It was marked with a simple marble slab carved with his name and the dates: 1941-2006.
The grave, placed in the middle of a square of crimson carpet framed by brass stands holding red velvet ropes, was a double one with room for his widow, Mirjana Markovic, who reportedly wants to join him when she dies. Her name was also inscribed in Cyrillic letters on the stone.
It was dug beneath a linden tree where the couple first kissed as high school sweethearts.
No immediate members of Milosevic's family attended, but in a letter read out at graveside, Markovic, who lives in self-imposed exile in Moscow because she faces Serbian charges of abuse of power during her husband's 13-year reign, said, "You have come back to our home to rest in the place you loved the most." "You lost your life while fighting for noble causes. You were killed by villains. But I know you will live forever for all who wish to live like human beings," her letter said.
A letter from the couple's son, Marko Milosevic, expressed hope that the late president's death would "sober up the humiliated Serb people." "To die for one's country means to live forever," his letter said.
No priest officiated at the interment because Milosevic was an avowed atheist.
Up to 20,000 people had lined the main street into the gritty industrial town of Pozarevac, about 50 kilometers south of Belgrade, where at least 80,000 supporters attended a farewell rally earlier in the day, authorities said.
Among the supporters in Pozarevac were several indicted war crimes suspects on temporary leave from the UN tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands. One, retired Gen. Dragoljub Ojdanic, wore his military uniform.
In Belgrade, die-hard supporters - many bused in by Milosevic's Socialist Party from Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo, where he started wars that led to Yugoslavia's bloody 1990s breakup - packed a square in front of the federal parliament building in Belgrade.
Many wept uncontrollably and chanted "Slobo! Slobo!" at the sight of the flag-draped coffin on a bier atop a red-carpeted stage. Some clutched photographs of Milosevic or the UN court's two most-wanted fugitives: Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his wartime military chief, Gen. Ratko Mladic.
Authorities refused to approve an official ceremony, but Saturday's farewell - organized by the Socialists and technically private - had some of the trappings of a state funeral.
But the crowd in Belgrade, though larger than many had expected, was far smaller than the 500,000 who turned out for the 2003 funeral of assassinated Serbian premier Zoran Djindjic, who had sent Milosevic to the tribunal two years earlier.
Milosevic died March 11 in his room in a detention center near the tribunal, which was trying him on 66 counts of war crimes, including genocide. He was the first head of state to be extradited by his country for trial by the UN court.
"We are bidding farewell to the best one among us, fully conscious of his greatness," Socialist deputy president Milorad Vucelic said.
Bosko Nikolic, 42, holding a huge poster of Milosevic, said: "I came to say goodbye to the greatest son of Serbia." But some drivers passing by the square honked their horns and made obscene gestures at the Milosevic supporters, underscoring the disgust many Serbs feel toward the late autocratic president.
"All of Belgrade's squares would be too small for all the victims of Milosevic and his rule," said Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic, twice targeted for assassination by the regime. "A murderer and his crimes were glorified today." Among the speakers was Ramsey Clark, a former US attorney general and longtime Milosevic supporter who is now on Saddam Hussein's defense team. "History will prove that Slobodan Milosevic was right," Clark said, drawing cheers.
Later Saturday, about 2,000 anti-Milosevic activists gathered at another central Belgrade square for an impromptu rally.
The activists, mostly young people, waved red balloons, whistled, danced and shouted: "He is gone!" They also burned Milosevic's picture and scuffled briefly with a dozen Karadzic supporters who tried to disrupt the gathering.