A Bosnian Croat war criminal has died after swallowing poison while judges announced a verdict to uphold his 20-year prison sentence.

Slobodan Praljak, 72, was one of six former Bosnian Croat political and military leaders accused of involvement in a campaign to drive Muslims out of Bosnia in the early 1990s.

Praljak was charged with ordering the destruction of Mostar's 16th-century bridge in November 1993, which judges said "caused disproportionate damage to the Muslim civilian population."

The appeals court hearing was dramatically cut short when Praljak shouted: "I am not a war criminal" and quickly swallowed the contents of a small bottle, moments after judges confirmed his sentence at the International Criminal Court in The Hague on Tuesday (29 November).

The hearing was suspended after Praljak's lawyer told the court: "My client says he has taken poison." One presiding judge ordered that curtains be lowered around the dock during the ensuing panic.

Croatia's state TV reported that Praljak had died but a UN spokesperson said he was unable to confirm the death.

The courtroom has been sealed off. Judge Carmel Agius said that it was now a crime scene. The Dutch police are investigating.

Praljak had been in custody before the hearing and it is not clear how he managed to get hold of the poison and smuggle it into the tightly guarded courtroom.

The trial resumed after Praljak had left the courtroom. Judges confirmed the prison sentences, ranging from 10 to 25 years, of all six Croats who had appealed.

The Hague court recently sentenced Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb general, to life in prison after he was found guilty of war crimes and genocide.

Slobodan Praljak
Slobodan Praljak swallows the substance said to be poison Reuters/ICTY