|Kosov@/Nato||25. Juni 1999|
New York Times, June 25, 1999
Kosovo's Rebels Accused of Executions in the Ranks
By CHRIS HEDGES
The senior commanders of the Kosovo Liberation Army, who have a signed agreement with NATO to disarm, carried out assassinations, arrests and purges within their ranks to thwart potential rivals, say current and former commanders in the rebel army and some Western diplomats.
The campaign, in which as many as half a dozen top rebel commanders were shot dead, was directed by Hashim Thaci and two of his lieutenants, Azem Syla and Xhavit Haliti, these officials said. Thaci denied through a spokesman that he had been responsible for any killings.
Although the United States has long been wary of the KLA, the rebel group has become the main ethnic Albanian power in Kosovo. Rebel commanders supplied NATO with target information during the bombing campaign. Now, after the war, the United States and other NATO powers have effectively made Thaci and the KLA partners in rebuilding Kosovo. The agreement NATO signed with Thaci, for example, envisions turning the KLA into a civilian police force and leaves open the possibility that the KLA could become a provisional army modeled on the U.S. National Guard.
While none of the KLA officials interviewed saw Thaci or his aides execute anyone, they recounted, and in some cases said they had witnessed, incidents in which Thaci's rivals had been killed shortly after he or one of his aides had threatened them with death.
"When the war started, everyone wanted to be the chief," said Rifat Haxhijaj, 30, a former lieutenant in the Yugoslav army who left the rebel movement last September and now lives in Switzerland. "For the leadership, this was never just a war against Serbs -- it was also a struggle for power."
Thaci's representative in Switzerland, Jashae Salihu, denied accounts of assassinations. "These kind of reports are untrue," he said. "Neither Thaci nor anyone else from the KLA is involved in this kind of activity. Our goal has been to establish a free Kosovo and nothing more."
The accusations of assassinations and purges were made in interviews with about a dozen former and current Kosovo Liberation Army officials, two of whom said they had witnessed executions of Thaci's rivals; a former senior diplomat for the Albanian government; a former police official in the Albanian government who worked with the rebel group, and several Western diplomats.
But the State Department Wednesday challenged some aspects of these accounts. "We simply don't have information to substantiate allegations that there was a KLA-leadership-directed program of assassinations or executions," James Rubin, the State Department spokesman, said.
Rubin said he could not exclude the possibility that the rebel leaders were somehow tied to the killings. But he said department officials had checked a wide range of sources in the past 24 hours and could not confirm the accusations.
A senior State Department official and a Western diplomat in the Balkans, citing intelligence reports and extensive contacts with KLA officials inside and outside Kosovo, said they were aware of executions of middle-grade officers suspected of collaborating with the Serbs, but said they had no evidence to link those killings with Thaci.
The Western diplomat in the Balkans said, however, that Thaci is legendary in the region for ruthless tactics.
"Thaci has engaged in some pretty rough intimidation" of officials in a rival party, the diplomat said, "but none of them have been killed." He added: "There have been detentions, and the victims allege beatings. We cannot prove that. Thaci, according to them, was in charge of the team that detained them and was in charge of the interrogation and personally threatened them.
"Thaci has a reputation for being pretty tough," the diplomat continued. "Haliti and Syla are not known for their sweet tempers. This is a rough neighborhood, and intimidation and assassinations happen."
Former and current KLA officials also charge that a campaign of assassinations was carried out in close cooperation with the Albanian government, which often placed agents from the Albanian secret police at the disposal of the rebel commanders.
Rubin said the State Department did not have any information to suggest that the KLA leadership directed an execution program in conjunction with the Albanian security services.
The Western diplomat in the Balkans said he knew of at least two Albanian secret police officers who were fighting with the KLA. "The two officers are brigade or battalion commanders, and they've been in the field fighting," the diplomat said. "They're volunteers from Albania."
Albania has long waged a campaign to unite with Kosovo, a Serbian province where Albanians are in the majority. Such unification was briefly achieved during Fascist occupation in World War II and was held out as a goal by radical groups financed and backed by Tirana in the later part of the century. Indeed, the close relationship between Thaci and the Tirana government, which has a reputation for corruption and has been linked by Western diplomats to drug trafficking, is one of the factors that disillusioned many former fighters who were interviewed in Germany, Switzerland and Albania. The fighters said they had fought to create a more Western, democratic state, free from Albanian influence and control.
The Albanian minister of information, Musa Ulqini, said that there was "never any violation of our constitutional law." He added: "The Albanian government has relations with all of the political and military forces in Kosovo, but it insists that these forces unite and speak with one voice."
Two former rebel leaders and a former Albanian police official, interviewed in Tirana, said that Haliti, who is officially Thaci's ambassador to Albania, was working in Kosovo with 10 secret police agents from Albania to form an internal security network that would be used to silence dissenters in Kosovo.
Thaci, 30, has named a government, with himself as prime minister, and denounced Ibrahim Rugova, who for nearly a decade was the self-styled president of Kosovo and ran a successful campaign of nonviolent protest after the Serbs stripped Kosovo of its autonomy in 1989.
Thaci has long ties to radical groups that called for the violent overthrow of the government in Belgrade. He joined a clandestine organization known as the Kosovo Popular Movement that existed on the fringes of Pristina University. The group was financed and backed by the Stalinist dictator of Albania, Enver Hoxha, until his death in 1985. Its members, including Syla, whom Thaci appointed his defense minister, and Haliti have become the core of the leadership that dominates the Kosovo Liberation Army.
Violence has long swirled around Thaci, whose nom de guerre was Snake. In June 1997, in an incident that many in the underground guerrilla movement found ominous, a Kosovar Albanian reporter who had close links with the movement was found dead in his apartment in Tirana, his face disfigured by repeated stabbings with a screwdriver and the butt end of a broken bottle. The reporter, Ali Uka, was supportive of the rebel movement, but he was also independent enough to criticize it. At the time of his death, he was sharing his apartment with Thaci.
Thaci inspired fear and respect in his home base of the central Drenica region in Kosovo as he organized armed units and carried out ambushes against Serbian policemen. In the early days of the rebel uprising, in March 1998, Thaci moved about from his hometown of Broja in a small compact car with a few bodyguards and wore an unadorned camouflage uniform.
There were persistent reports at the time that he personally carried out executions of Kosovar Albanians whom he had branded as traitors or collaborators, but no witnesses have surfaced.
Thaci was involved, along with Haliti, in arms smuggling from Switzerland in the years before the 1998 uprising, say current and former senior rebel commanders.
Thaci and Haliti both have wives and children in Switzerland, although Haliti has formed a new family in Tirana, where he has a large villa and close links with senior government leaders, say former and current rebel officials in Albania.
When the uprising began, and money and volunteers flooded into Albania from the 700,000 Kosovar Albanians living in Europe, Thaci and Haliti found themselves in charge of thousands of fighters and tens of millions of dollars.
The arms smuggling mushroomed into a huge operation that saw trucks loaded with weapons, most bought from Albanian officials, headed for KLA camps on the border. By the war's end, former and current KLA officials estimate, the KLA. paid $50 million to Albanian officials for weapons and ammunition.
In April 1998, a KLA commander who transported many of the weapons, Ilir Konushevci, was ambushed and killed on the road outside Tropoja in northern Albania. A few days earlier, in a heated meeting with senior commanders, he had accused Haliti of misusing funds, according to commanders who were present.
The commander had charged that Haliti was buying boxes of grenades at $2 apiece and charging the movement $7 for each grenade. The killing, although it took place in a rebel-controlled region in northern Albania, was blamed on the Serbs.
Other killings of rebel commanders and political rivals ascribed to Thaci are attributed to a struggle to consolidate control and eliminate potential challengers.
"Cadavers have never been an obstacle to Thaci's career," said Bujar Bukoshi, the prime minister in exile in Rugova's administration, which is often at odds with the KLA. One Western diplomat, citing intelligence reports, said that Thaci planned an unsuccessful assassination attempt on Bukoshi last May. "Thaci has a single goal and that is to promote himself, to be No. 1," Bukoshi said. As the rebels suffered reverses on the battlefield in the summer and fall of 1998, in large part due to inexperience and a lack of central command, they turned to Kosovar Albanians who had served in the former Yugoslav army. The most experienced was a former colonel named Ahmet Krasniqi who had organized some 600 former officers, most living in Switzerland and Germany, to join the fight. Krasniqi had surrendered his garrison in Gospic, Croatia, in 1991 rather than defend Slobodan Milosevic's regime in Belgrade.
Krasniqi had the blessing of Bukoshi, who allowed him to pass on $4.5 million to the KLA raised by Rugova's administration. He swiftly set up training camps in the border region and formed special units. Bukoshi named him commander of a rival military structure known as the Armed Forces of the Kosovo Republic. The effort to join the armed struggle was a belated attempt by the Rugova administration, which had swiftly lost political support in Kosovo, to regain credibility by playing a role in the "liberation" of the Serbian province. Thaci and Haliti accepted the money and the trained volunteers, integrating them into KLA units, but began to thwart Krasniqi's attempt to build an independent military force. In June 1998 the KLA, which controlled the border, began to divert or block arms being taken over the mountain to these rival units fighting around Pec and Decane. As tensions rose, Thaci and the Albanian authorities decided to eliminate Krasniqi, according to former rebel commanders and two former Albanian officials interviewed in Tirana.
They said that in the middle of September 1998, Albanian police stopped Krasniqi and several aides and confiscated their weapons. Krasniqi's office in Tirana was raided by about 50 policemen and emptied of guns and munitions. On Sept. 21 at 11 p.m. on the way back from a restaurant in Tirana, Krasniqi ran into a police checkpoint about 300 yards from his office, according to a former KLA commander who was with Krasniqi. Krasniqi and his two companions were again frisked for weapons, and their vehicle was searched. The two cars behind Krasniqi, which carried aides, were not allowed through the checkpoint.
When Krasniqi and his two companions got out of their gray Opal jeep they saw three men emerge from the shadows with black hoods over their faces. The men, speaking in an Albanian accent that distinguished them from Kosovar Albanians, ordered the two men with Krasniqi down on the ground.
"Which one is it?" asked one of the gunmen, according to one of the commanders who was prone on the asphalt.
"The one in the middle," said another. The gunmen, who held a pistol a few inches from Krasniqi's head, fired a shot. He then fired two more shots into Krasniqi's head once he fell onto the pavement.
American officials also had reports that the KLA killed Krasniqi, but said there were also subsequent, conflicting reports from the region that he was killed by disaffected members of his own unit.
After Krasniqi's death, former KLA commanders said, the killings, purges and arrests accelerated. KLA police, dressed in distinctive black fatigues, threw into detention anyone who appeared hostile to Thaci. Many of these people were beaten.
One commander, Blerim Kuci, was taken away in October 1998 to a KLA jail and hauled before a revolutionary court. He was held for weeks on charges that he was a Serb collaborator and then suddenly released in the face of a large Serb offensive and allowed to rejoin the fight.
"I saw an accused collaborator tried before a revolutionary court and then tied to the back of a car in Glodjane and dragged through the streets until he died," said a former KLA officer in Albania, who asked not to be identified. A senior State Department official and a Western diplomat in the Balkans confirmed this account.
As NATO bombs fell on Kosovo this April, two more outspoken commanders, Agim Ramadani, a captain in the former Yugoslav army, and Sali Ceku, were killed, each in an alleged Serb ambush.
Although a former senior rebel officer in Tirana said that Thaci was responsible, a Western diplomat contends that that Ceku was killed by a Serb sniper. He said that his contacts indicated that Ramadani was killed in battle, but those contacts did not mention an ambush, or politically related killing, in either case.
The former KLA officer said, however, that rebel officials had told Ceku that he and his lieutenant Tahir Zemaj should leave the movement, but the stubborn Ceku had refused to depart. Zemaj, however, fled to Germany. "Tahir knew they were serious, and he got out," said the officer said. "Sali stayed, and he was killed."