Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kosovo: KLA Men Indicted

Arrest of former guerrillas has stunned local Albanians who consider them heroic liberators.
By IWPR staff

People here are still struggling to come to grips with the arrest of four former members of the Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, accused of committing war crimes against Serb and Albanian civilians during the 1998-99 conflict.

These are the first such charges to be leveled at ethnic Albanian guerrillas by The Hague tribunal, and their compatriots have reacted with a mixture of shock and anger.

The most prominent of the group, former KLA leader Fatmir Limaj - who used the nom de guerre Celiku (Steel) - is now a senior political figure in the region. The three other men - Haradin Balaj, Agim Murtezi and Isak Musliu - were lower ranking fighters and are not well known here.

The Hague issued a warrant for their arrests on January 24, and NATO-led KFOR troops detained Musliu on February 11. Balaj and Murtezi were picked up in Pristina on February 17, and all three were transferred to the tribunal's Schevenginen Detention Centre the following day.

However, when KFOR moved to arrest Limaj, they discovered that he was not in the country. A source in the United Nations Mission in Kosovo, UNMIK, told IWPR that the indictee turned himself over to the police in the Slovenian town of Kranjska Gora on February 18. He had been enjoying a skiing holiday with Hashim Thaci, another ex-KLA leader who now heads the Democratic Party in Kosovo, PDK.

The Hague's chief prosecutor Carla del Ponte strongly criticised KFOR for allowing Limaj to slip out of Kosovo when they knew he was to be indicted.

The controversy culminated in a tense meeting between Del Ponte and UNMIK chief administrator Michael Steiner at Pristina airport on February 20.

UNMIK sources told IWPR that Steiner was angry with Del Ponte for refusing to let him honour a previous promise to the Kosovo parliament - that he would ensure that Limaj would be allowed to return to the protectorate before being transferred to The Hague.

This decision apparently infuriated the UNMIK chief, who feels that the broken promise may damage his ability to negotiate with Kosovo's parliamentarians if any other war crimes indictments are brought in the future.

Meanwhile, Limaj told the media in Ljubljana that he had decided to give himself up two hours after learning that the indictment had been issued - and would have stayed in the Kosovar capital had he known that his arrest was imminent.

"Everything I did was in the service of my people," he said. "The fate of the individual isn't very important. I see this as the price of Kosovo's independence and I am ready to pay it."

The four men have been indicted on nine counts including false imprisonment, torture, cruel treatment and the murder of 35 civilians - Albanian as well as Serb - at the Lapusnik Prison Camp in central Kosovo, between May and July 1998.

The indictment also charged Limaj with "exercising both de jure and de facto command and control" over KLA staff in the camp.

It further alleged that he took a direct part in the interrogation, torture and cruel treatment of detainees, as well as ordering the execution of 22 civilians - nine Serbs and 13 Albanians.

KLA guerrillas abandoned the camp on July 25, 1998, before Serb troops overran the area. The indictment claims that Bala and Murtezi then marched some 22 detainees into the Berisa Mountains in the Drenica valley, meeting Limaj and taking his orders along the way.

Shortly after that Bala and Murtezi released nine of the prisoners. Together with a third KLA member, it is claimed that they marched the remaining 13 detainees to a clearing in the woods and killed all but two of them. The names of the dead prisoners are listed in the tribunal's indictment.

The KLA had persistently denied all allegations of crimes against civilians during the Kosovo conflict. Thaci has insisted that his men strictly respected the Geneva Conventions.

Limaj has denied every count of the indictment, and told the public broadcaster RTK that he will go to The Hague "to defend the cause for which the glorious KLA fought".

Serbia's justice minister Vladan Batic has frequently leveled war crimes charges against Thaci and his fellow commanders Ramush Haradinaj - current president of the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo, AAK - and Agim Ceku, who now heads the Kosovo Protection Corps, KPC.

However, Limaj's indictment may implicate other senior KLA figures. The chief prosecutor has already stated that a number of people are currently being investigated - although their indictments have been delayed because witnesses were "too afraid" to testify. In his last report to the UN Security Council, Steiner said "potential tribunal witnesses were targeted by extremist groups".

Public reaction to the arrests was decidedly mixed. Analysts in Pristina believe that an appeal by Limaj for calm, which was aired by RTK, persuaded many of his followers to restrain themselves.

A crowd of around 7,000 Kosovo Albanians chanting "Freedom to the liberators" and "KLA, KLA", protested in Limaj's home of Malisevo, in the centre of the protectorate. But the rest of the protectorate remained calm, with Albanians expressing a mixture of disappointment in the West and confidence that justice was on the side of the former guerrillas.

In Pristina, unemployed Fehmi spoke out against the indictments, and called them "an attempt by the international community to imply that Kosovo's war of liberation was as brutal as that of the Serbian aggressors". Another local resident, Dardan told IWPR that people here regard the tribunal as fair and that "only a few believe Limaj is guilty and expect that he will be able to prove his innocence in the Hague".

Political analyst Shkelzen Maliqi stressed that Limaj's arrest did not implicate the KLA as a whole, although AAK deputy Barjam Kosumi did not rule out the possibility that some of its members may have "deviated" from the principle of not harming civilians because of a lack "of a strict hierarchy" within the organisation.