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Tough new war crimes prosecutor

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A tough Swiss prosecutor is about to take on indicted war criminals - including Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic - for the United Nations' war crimes tribunals in The Hague.

Carla del Ponte, who takes up her new post Sept. 15, has proved over a long career that she is not afraid to go after the new wave of international Russian criminals, South American drug traffickers, or the more traditional Italian mafia.

Widely admired for her determination and courage, Ms. del Ponte was nearly killed in a bomb explosion in Sicily while investigating money laundering by the Mafia in 1988. The prosecutor now lives under heavy police protection and is accompanied by bodyguards on her daily jog.

"There is no question that she is a strong woman, energetic, with plenty of will power," says Dominique Poncet, a Geneva attorney who has defended a number of high-profile clients.

The elegant and reserved del Ponte takes over the two tribunals - for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda - at a crucial time in their brief history. Her predecessor, Louise Arbour, is widely credited with successfully imposing the two courts on the world scene despite a lack of political will and resources when they were first created by the UN Security Council in 1993 and 1994. Experts see this new appointment as another sign that the international community is finally serious about prosecuting war criminals.

The two special courts have the power to accuse any person, including a sitting head of state, of war crimes. To date the two bodies have judged 12 cases, with more than 60 prisoners charged with war crimes in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia still awaiting trial.

Given her success in raising the profile of the tribunals, Arbour will be a tough act to follow. International lawyers say the performance of the two courts in the coming months is likely to prove crucial for the future credibility of the permanent International Court of Justice scheduled to come into being once 60 countries finish ratifying the treaty that created it

Del Ponte was strongly backed by the United States because of her close cooperation with the Drug Enforcement Administration in pursuing money laundering operations, even allowing DEA agents to work in Switzerland with Swiss police.

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