The trial was orchestrated by authoritarian nationalist president Slobodan Milosevic just days before he fell in a popular uprising and was replaced by democratic reformers committed to good ties with the West.
In a belated procedural step seven months after the trial, the Belgrade district court formally notified defense lawyers of the 20-year sentences meted out to the 14 Western leaders and issued warrants for their arrest, Beta news agency reported.
The air strikes led to a withdrawal of Milosevic's security forces from Kosovo in June 1999 but they caused about 500 civilian deaths around the country, according to the New York-based Human Rights Watch watchdog group.
Milosevic, now in jail for alleged corruption, was indicted by the U.N. war crimes tribunal for suspected atrocities by his forces against Kosovo Albanians. But the tribunal rejected his government's demand for indictments of NATO government leaders.
One of the leaders convicted by the Belgrade court, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, was in the Serbin capital two weeks ago for talks with the ruling reform coalition.
The Belgrade District Court said its notification of the defense was only procedure. Any changes to the verdict, it said, could be made only on appeal by the Supreme Court.
Serbian deputy Justice Minister Djordje Ninkovic said that government hoped the verdict would be overturned on appeal. He said the court move was embarrassing.
"We are hostages of the former regime. They started the procedure and we cannot stop it without interfering (improperly in legal process). The legal procedure has to follow its course without interference from executive authorities," he said.
"For our part, we feel discomfort about this turn of events. We hope the verdict will be overturned on appeal," he said.
Slavisa Mrdakovic, who defended absent French President Jacques Chirac, Defense Minister Alain Richard and Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine, said he had already lodged an appeal.
Mrdakovic agreed the court only acted in line with legal procedure. But he said his clients and the other locally convicted Western leaders could not come to Yugoslavia now without firm guarantees that they would not be arrested.
"With these 'red' warrants any policeman is now entitled to arrest any of them. We intend to have a state ruled by law, one in which neither international nor domestic politics interferes with the judiciary," he said.
"A possible way out could be for the (federal) Yugoslav or Serbian (republic) presidents to pardon these leaders. But in practice that would be politically impossible, he said. Many Serbs remain bitter over NATO's bombing blitz.
Mrdakovic said he had informed the French embassy in Belgrade about the latest developments.
The embassy said it had no official comment.
By GORDANA FILIPOVIC
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