Regional Report: Iron Man Behind Bars

Indicted ex-guerrilla leader is viewed by Albanians as a man of courage and integrity.

Regional Report: Iron Man Behind Bars

Indicted ex-guerrilla leader is viewed by Albanians as a man of courage and integrity.

Tuesday, 22 February, 2005

Fatmir Limaj, nicknamed Iron Man, a former rebel leader turned politician, made history last week as the first senior Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, figure indicted by The Hague.

Limaj was outside the province when NATO forces tried to arrest him. He had gone on a business trip to Slovenia, where he gave himself up to local police after hearing of his indictment. The Hague is now seeking his extradition.

On his detention, Limaj issued an appeal to his supporters to refrain from protesting and to remain calm.

However, Limaj was not always known for maturity.

During a live political debate transmitted on the local TV21 prior to elections in 2000, Limaj threatened Ilir Tolaj, the then Democratic League of Kosovo, LDK, candidate, saying he would "sort him out" physically outside the TV studio.

This happened after a heated studio debate, in which the rival politicians both insulted each other.

When asked to describe Limaj, Tolaj, now head of the Pristina health department, said, "The post-war Fatmir in 1999 was a man totally blinded by the victory of the KLA - he thought he was powerful enough to change the world."

Tolaj said he met Limaj two years after the TV showdown, and found him a different man. "I recently had a coffee with him. I was glad to see that he had evolved into a much more positive person. He was regretful of having threatened me like that in 1999."

A father of four, Limaj celebrated his 32nd birthday three weeks ago.

In the early Nineties, he began studying law at the University of Pristina. In 1996, he joined small guerrilla groups, which were later to become the KLA.

In the war, he was nicknamed Celiku or Iron Man, a result of his reputation as a daring KLA soldier.

He was among the top KLA leaders wanted by the Serbs, but was never caught. In March 1999, the latter charged him and the head of the KLA, Hashin Thaci, with terrorism and other illegal activities.

Limaj's brother was not so fortunate. Demir Limaj was arrested in 1997 by Serb forces for being a member of KLA, and was later tortured by them. He was sentenced to eight years in prison and was among a group of Albanian political prisoners released after the war.

It's thought his brother's bitter experience with the Serb authorities had a significant influence in Limaj's determination as a freedom fighter against the Belgrade regime.

During his militant career in the KLA, Limaj was successful in stopping a Serbian offensive to regain control of Llapushnik, with only six other men under his command.

But he became angry at some of the tactics of his fellow commanders, branding as "immature" the decision to launch main force operations in the summer of 1998 against, which he said was unrealistic and immature.

His complaint - that the units should have kept to guerrilla tactics - was borne out later that year when their fragile units were smashed by Serb army offensives

After NATO took control of Kosovo in June 1999, Limaj transformed into an ambitious politician, becoming one of the core leaders of the Democratic Party of Kosovo, PDK, created by members of the KLA.

Besim Shehu, a student living in Pristina, like many here, justified his vote for Limaj during the last elections on the grounds that the former KLA leader refrained from criminal activities.

"This is a small place and people know which businesses are owned by which politicians - Limaj has so far not been known to use his name and political power to get any personal profit and I respect him for that," said Shehu.

However, Limaj's name was abused by others. For instance, there were cases when it was used by Albanians to illegally take over houses abandoned by the Serbs.

Limaj paid a visit to one of these apartments where, the Albanian who had unlawfully squatted the place after its Serb owners left, had put a sticker on the nameplate that said, "Do not touch. Commander Celiku."

Limaj rang the bell and asked the occupant if he knew who Commander Celiku was.

The answer came back that Celiku lived there and was very strong and powerful. When Limaj introduced himself, it is said that the squatter immediately removed the nameplate.

In 2000, Limaj presented himself as a candidate to run for mayor of Pristina, in an election monitored by the international administration.

After an intense, indecisive campaign between him and the LDK candidate, Edita Tahiri, it was decided that the capital would be overseen by an international official who would also play the role of a mayor.

As a deputy in the Kosovo parliament, Limaj has often expressed his frustration with the impotence and inflexibility of some fellow Albanian politicians who have hardly managed to ratify a single reform. After the 2002 elections, Limaj declared that parliamentarians get paid for doing nothing.

Naser Miftari is an editor on the Pristina daily Koha Ditore.

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