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Structure of KLA Explored

Western diplomat offers up observations of Albanian militant group’s operations.
By Michael Farquhar

An Austrian diplomat called by the prosecutors in the first Hague trial of Kosovar Albanians this week provided insights into the community’s principal militant group during the late Nineties.


Jan Kickert, who was based in Belgrade at the time and made several visits to Kosovo, touched on a number of subjects including the extent of Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, operations in 1998 and his impressions of how the group was organised.


Fatmir Limaj, Isak Musliu and Haradin Bala are charged in connection with the alleged torture and murder of Serbs and suspected Albanian collaborators at a prison camp in the village of Lapusnik in central Kosovo between May and July 1998. The three have pleaded not guilty to all counts against them.


For the charges to fall under the tribunal’s jurisdiction, prosecutors must prove that the alleged crimes were committed in the context of an armed conflict. This includes showing that the KLA was an organised force during the period in question and that it was involved in “protracted armed violence” with the Yugoslav government.


And while all three defendants are accused of personal involvement in at least some of the crimes listed in the indictment, prosecutors are also alleging that Limaj and Musliu had “command responsibility” – that is, are also accountable for any crimes committed by their subordinates if sufficient steps were not taken to prevent them, or punish the perpetrators after the fact.


But for this, too, they need to show that the KLA had a functioning command structure during the period in question – a fact which the defence have called into question.


Kickert – whose testimony was interrupted earlier this week when Bala was taken to hospital for medical checks – told the court that the KLA blocked main roads in Kosovo between May and June 1998 and there were reports in that year that the organisation was in control of as much as half the region.


He said Limaj was introduced to him in July 1998 as a “commander”, that there was talk at the time of a KLA “general staff” and that there appeared to be a hierarchy of numbers used to refer to senior KLA members.


But he said he had difficulty finding people who could speak authoritatively on behalf of the organisation, and struggled to understand how it operated.


Kickert said he had three meetings with KLA members in July 1998, as part of an effort to find representatives who could conduct negotiations with Belgrade and the international community.


The first meeting, he said, was on July 22 in the town of Malisevo, which was regarded at that time as the capital of the areas under KLA control. One of the KLA representatives present introduced himself as “number seven”.


“We had heard before that there might be, within the KLA, a sort of hierarchy based on numbers,” Kickert told the court. “So we were... very happy to meet number seven.”


The following day Kickert also met “number three”, Hashim Thaci. “After having met number seven, I assumed that number three would be higher in the hierarchy,” said Kickert.


He said he raised the matter of the Geneva conventions with Thaci, who gave assurance that the KLA would respect the regulations because they were a “regular army”.


Following the meetings in Malisevo, the KLA abandoned the town and Kickert said he and his colleagues were “at a loss” as to whom they should speak to. Eventually, a third meeting was arranged for July 30 in Klecke.


The prosecution produced Kickert’s own handwritten agenda for the meeting, which made mention of the Geneva conventions and the fact that all parties would be held responsible for war crimes.


The witness said that there had been a lot of talk in the media about abductions, and other notes of his from the time revealed that the Yugoslav ministry of defence had claimed had claimed in late June that there had been up to 55 such disappearances to date.


Prosecutors claim that the people held in the Lapusnik camp had earlier been kidnapped by KLA soldiers in the surrounding region.


Those present at the meeting in Klecke included Jakup Krasniqi, who had by then emerged as a KLA spokesperson, and Limaj. Kickert said this was the first time he had met the latter.


Limaj was introduced, Kickert said, as a “commander” and he assumed he might be a regional commander because of his presence at the meeting. But later, under cross-examination by defence lawyers, the witness confirmed that he had not been explicitly told that Limaj was a regional commander.


Kickert was unable to say much about the structure of the KLA in 1998 in general terms, although he said that throughout his dealings with the organisation he had the feeling that decisions were made more in consensus amongst a large number of people than on a hierarchical basis.


He said he and his colleagues had been unsure whether the “general staff” referred to by KLA members at the time had really existed.


Kickert told the court that the whole process of trying to find KLA representatives who could get involved in the political process was made difficult because of this problem of pinning down just how the KLA was organised. “It was not clear to me … how it operated,” he said.


Defence lawyers have argued that in the period referred to in the indictment, the KLA still had “little central co-ordination and no unified command structure”. They claim Limaj and Musliu had no power over the men fighting with them, who did so as volunteers and out of a sense of trust rather than duty.


In his opening statement last week, prosecutor Andrew Cayley argued that it was not necessary to show that the KLA was comparable with a modern, sophisticated army in 1998 in order to prove the existence of an armed conflict and to employ the notion of command responsibility with regard to crimes committed in that period.


He also said then that another international witness, a retired army officer, will appear to say that in the summer of 1998 the KLA had headquarters, a regional system of organisation and recruitment and training programmes.


Kickert’s testimony on November 22 was interrupted when Bala was unexpectedly taken to hospital during one of the breaks to undergo tests. Lawyers for Bala, who has long-term problems with his health, have argued that he is unfit to stand trial – but this is disputed by doctors.


Court was adjourned for the day but proceedings got underway again the following afternoon, with Bala once again present.


Following Kickert’s testimony, the court went into closed session to hear protected witness “L7”.


L7 is the only witness expected to testify in complete secrecy during the prosecution phase of the trial, with members of the public and the media barred from the court gallery for the entire testimony. Eleven other witnesses are due to appear using voice and image distortion to protect their identity.


Prosecutors say some of these witnesses have been subject to threats and intimidation in connection with the case, and one has faced attempts on his or her life.


A Kosovar Albanian, Beqe Beqaj, appeared before tribunal judges recently to plead not guilty to charges that he has attempted to interfere with prosecution witnesses in the case.


The trial continues.


Michael Farquhar is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.


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