A top Serb opposition leader went on trial Wednesday at the U.N. war crimes tribunal on charges that he inflamed ethnic tensions and incited Serb paramilitaries to carry out atrocities during Yugoslavia’s bloody breakup.

Vojilsav Seselj — chairman of the nationalist Serbian Radical Party, Serbia’s main opposition party — is one of the most senior political figures in custody at the tribunal. His trial marks one of the court’s few remaining chances to hold Serbian leaders responsible for the atrocities unleashed during the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.Once a close associate of late ex-Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic, Seselj spurred Serbs in extreme nationalistic speeches to commit murder, torture and rape as they pursued the goal of a “greater Serbia” by ethnically cleansing parts of Bosnia and Croatia, prosecutor Christine Dahl said.”In the end, Mr. Seselj did not achieve a greater Serbia. He managed to achieve only a lesser Serbia and gave the world the phrase ‘ethnic cleansing.’”Dahl told the story of one witness who will testify against Seselj, a Muslim woman raped by Serb paramilitaries whose husband and two young children were killed by Serbs.”The destruction of her community, her life, her family exemplifies the product of the belligerent, bellicose nationalism propagated by the accused,” Dahl told the three-judge panel in an opening statement.Seselj, acting as his own defense attorney, does not deny making nationalist speeches but says they do not constitute war crimes. He is scheduled to make a statement Thursday.Milosevic died in March 2006 before his genocide trial could finish. Other key suspects in the atrocities, former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and military chief Gen. Ratko Mladic, have been indicted on genocide charges but remain on the run.Seselj also contributed troops considered among the most brutal of the Balkan wars, Dahl said.”During the war, he adopted the role of a paramilitary commander who raised his own army of volunteers,” she told the court. “He indoctrinated them with his own poisonous ideas and sent them to the front lines … where they and others committed unspeakable crimes.”Seselj was mostly emotionless but smiled and laughed at times during her statement.Seselj, 53, was charged with murder, persecution, inhumane treatment and wanton destruction of property, including religious buildings. He faces a maximum life sentence if convicted. He surrendered voluntarily in February 2003.During pretrial hearings, he told judges to remove their robes, saying they reminded him of medieval inquisitors, and refused to be represented by a court-appointed lawyer “with a bird’s nest on his head,” a reference to the wigs traditionally worn by British lawyers. Copyright 2007 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.