The KLA's New Model Leader

An architect of Operation Storm which saw Croatia defeat and expel the Serb population of Krajina, Agim Ceku, the KLA's new chief will be hoping for similar successes in Kosovo.

The KLA's New Model Leader

An architect of Operation Storm which saw Croatia defeat and expel the Serb population of Krajina, Agim Ceku, the KLA's new chief will be hoping for similar successes in Kosovo.

Decorated nine times by Croatian President Franjo Tudjman for his exploits in Croatia's war with Serbia and its Serb minority, Agim Ceku, the recently appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) will be hoping to achieve similar military successes in his native Kosovo.

Born in the province's second city of Pec in 1960, 39-year-old Ceku resigned from the Croatian army in February this year, after a distinguished seven-and-a-half year career in which he rose to the rank of Lieutenant-General, less than one month before the beginning of NATO's bombing campaign against Yugoslavia. His last post was as commander of Croatia's fifth military district in Rijeka.

In an interview with the Rijeka daily Novi List, Gen. Ceku said that he would be drawing on his experience from the Croatian war in his new job as the KLA's chief. Of particular use, he said, would be the understanding of Serbian military tactics he had picked up while fighting them.

Although Croatia has generally remained quiet on the war in Kosovo and President Tudjman has sought not to irritate his Belgrade ally in the division of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatian sympathies, nevertheless, lie with the Kosovo Albanians. It is believed that Croatia has already been assisting the KLA, if not with arms, then at least with battle-tested ethnic Albanian fighters who have served in the Croatian army.

According to Tom Marku, the Kosovo Albanian leader in Croatia, a special ethnic Albanian unit was formed within the Croatian army in 1991 which Zagreb hoped to send to Kosovo in order to open up a second front during Croatian-Serbian war . The plan was thwarted, however, because of opposition from Kosovo's Albanian leader and pacifist Ibrahim Rugova.

Since the outbreak of war in Kosovo in February last year, these soldiers have been returning home to fight the Serbian authorities. Marku told the Croatian daily Jutarnji List that a further 16 ethnic Albanian officers are about to quit the Croatian army in order to join the KLA.

Unlike many of Croatia's "instant generals" who acquired their ranks virtually overnight with minimal or no prior military experience, Gen. Ceku is a professional soldier and former officer in the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA). A tall and powerful man, he is a graduate of Belgrade's military academy, which, given his ethnic origins, was quite an achievement at the time.

Like many non-Serbs in the JNA, Gen. Ceku deserted early on in the war with Croatia. In October 1991 he joined an embryonic Croatian army, which, at the time, resembled the present-day KLA, in terms of organisation, manpower and equipment.

Although a proliferation of military awards in Croatia has somewhat debased their value, the nine decorations which Gen. Ceku received for his achievements in a Croatian uniform as well as his rank, are probably indicative of an inspirational contribution to the operations he conducted.

Croatian military analysts consider Gen. Ceku the brain behind the Croatian Army's Medak Pocket offensive, in which Croatia captured several villages in Lika from Serb rebels in September 1993. He was also a key planner of Operation Storm, Croatia's greatest military victory, of August 1995 in which the city of Knin, hitherto the headquarters of the Serb rebels, was retaken, thus effectively ending the Serb revolt.

During both the Medak Pocket offensive and, in particular, Operation Storm the victorious Croatian army is alleged to have committed a series of war crimes. These are currently being investigated by The Hague Tribunal, although no public indictments have been issued to date.

According to a report of Croatia's Helsinki Committee for Human Rights published in April of this year, 410 civilians died in operation Storm, which officially lasted from 4 to 7 August 1995, and in the 100 days following the offensive. However, it is estimated that the real figure may be as high as 600, since many people are still listed as missing. In the wake of Storm, some 180,000 Serbs fled their homes, and some 22,000 of their vacant houses were systematically destroyed.

The question which preoccupies Western analysts now is whether Gen. Ceku was involved in any of the alleged war crimes. On the basis of the available evidence, it seems that he was not.

Unlike other Croatian officers involved in the Medak Pocket offensive and Operation Storm, Gen. Ceku has not featured in any of the reports of the various non-governmental organisations which have investigated what took place. Nor has his name cropped up in articles examining the offensives published in independent media.

Gen. Ceku has generally sought to keep a low profile and avoid media appearances, preferring to focus on military issues--an approach he wishes to maintain in his new position.

Asked what he thinks will happen in Kosovo once the war is over--whether it will be independent, or an autonomous region of Serbia--he responded: "I am a soldier and my task is to look after the army, the situation on the battlefield, and to wage war successfully." He promised to fight until forces loyal to Slobodan Milosevic were expelled from Kosovo and to leave politics "to our government headed by Hashim Thaci."

Drago Hedl is home affairs editor of Rijeka's independent daily Novi List.

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