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

Trial Hears of KLA Terror Tactics

Former military attaché tells of kidnapped Serbs and of how paramilitaries treated Albanians believed to be loyal to the Serb administration.
By Michael Farquhar

The trial of three former Kosovo Liberation Army members this week heard from a former British military attaché to Belgrade, who spoke about the extent of fighting in Kosovo in 1998 and how the KLA dealt with suspected “collaborators”.

Fatmir Limaj, Isak Musliu and Haradin Bala are accused of running a prison camp in the village of Lapusnik from May to July 1998, in which Serbs and suspected Albanian collaborators were held captive, beaten and often murdered.

For the charges in question to be legally valid, prosecutors must prove that an armed conflict existed in Kosovo during the period in question - an assumption challenged by the defence.

According to tribunal jurisprudence, to show the existence of an armed conflict in Kosovo in 1998 it is necessary to prove that the KLA was an “organised armed group” at the time.

The issue of the organisation of the KLA is made doubly important by the fact that Limaj and Musliu are both being prosecuted for certain crimes on grounds of command responsibility – the idea that a commander can be held responsible for acts carried out by men under his command, even if he didn’t directly order them.

Prosecutors can obviously only use this tactic if they first prove that Limaj and Musliu held positions of responsibility in some kind of organised structure.

Former attaché Colonel John Crosland – whose face was hidden from public view by screens and image distortion, just as it was when he testified against Slobodan Milosevic in July 2002 – told judges on Thursday that clashes between the fledgling KLA and Serbian forces began well before the Lapusnik camp is alleged to have opened, and intensified through the course of 1998.

He also said the KLA regularly kidnapped ethnic Serbs in an effort to terrorise the population, and attacked Albanians it suspected of collaboration.

But while he spoke of training programmes, supply routes and regional headquarters, he expressed some scepticism about the extent to which the KLA had an organised command structure at the time.

Crosland’s testimony was largely made up of comments on a series of “diplomatic telegrams” presented to him by the prosecution. The bulk of these documents are still under seal, and two legal advisors of the British government were present in the courtroom throughout his testimony to ensure this measure was respected.

With reference to the events described in these reports, Crosland told judges that even as early as March and April 1998, clashes between Serbian forces and ethnic Albanian rebels in the Drenica Valley – a KLA heartland - were spreading to the area around the border with Albania, where the KLA was bringing in munitions and men along traditional smuggling routes.

According to the diplomatic reports, by the second half of April, western journalists were saying that the KLA virtually controlled areas just over the border in Albania.

There were also indications that the KLA was operating training camps in the Albanian towns of Tropoja, Bajram Curri and Kukes.

According to the witness, heavily equipped and well-trained Serbian special forces units were present in Kosovo from early 1998. He also said the Yugoslav army, whose primary role was to protect Yugoslavia’s borders, took an increasingly active role in affairs deeper inside Kosovo.

Crosland confirmed that by March of that year he had seen movement of heavy weapons such as anti-aircraft systems and armoured personnel carriers. Later, he said, he saw an artillery position made up of six guns near Decani.

Many of the reports presented by the prosecution detailed violent clashes between Serb forces and the KLA. They also outlined the Serb tactic of emptying the civilian population from large areas to create “free fire zones”, creating massive refugee flows in the process.

Crosland described the situation in 1998 as “fluid”, with the KLA and Serb and Yugoslav forces pushing backwards and forwards into different areas of territory.

By June, Crosland said, the KLA controlled some 35 per cent of Kosovo and was in fact able to launch operations in some 65 per cent of the territory, including an attack on the Belacevac mine just ten kilometres from the regional capital Pristina.

Prosecutor Andrew Cayley presented Crosland with a report signed by General Pavkovic, commander of the Pristina Corps of the Yugoslav army, in which he claimed the KLA had mobilised somewhere between 3,500 and 4,500 men and were increasingly “taking on the attributes of a military organisation”.

But Crosland questioned the figures given by Pavkovic, estimating himself that there were in fact only between 400 and 500 “hardcore KLA” in Kosovo at the time, although he conceded that Pavkovic’s figures might not be too “far fetched” if they included the number of men said to be training across the border in Albania.

The witness also said that the five or six KLA headquarters he had seen were not as organised as Pavkovic indicated. There was a basic system of command, he said, but he stressed that this was only basic – there might for instance be an area delineated by a road or a river, within which a head man would have “token authority”.

But Cayley has argued that it is not necessary to show that the KLA was equivalent at the time to a modern, sophisticated army in order to show the existence of an armed conflict and to use the concept of command responsibility.

Crosland also described a July 1998 visit to Malisevo, where the local KLA headquarters was, he judged, probably responsible for the village of Lapusnik.

There, he said, there was a bit more discipline and formality than at other headquarters he had seen, and those present had a “more soldierly-like way of behaving”.

At one stage during the meeting at the headquarters, he said, the discussion became quite heated when some KLA men threatened to take him and his party hostage. But a man who appeared to be a senior figure restored some sense to the conversation, he said. Asked for this man’s name, Crosland said he couldn’t remember for certain. “The name ‘Celiku’ has come up,” he said. “I’m not completely convinced if that was him or not.”

“Celiku” is the nickname allegedly used by Limaj during his time in the KLA. Prosecutors say Limaj was a regional KLA commander, whose area of responsibility included Lapusnik.

Against the background of mounting violence, Crosland confirmed the KLA had a practice of kidnapping ethnic Serbs.

“In order to increase the fear among Serbs, they were being kidnapped on a relatively regular basis,” he told the court.

One diplomatic report presented by the prosecution noted that kidnappings of Serbs had reached such a point that Serbs were beginning to avoid travel around Kosovo.

“In October we estimated something like 200 Serbs were missing, presumed having been kidnapped by Albanian elements,” Crosland told the judges.

The witness also discussed media reports that the KLA had carried out grenade attacks on businesses and restaurants in Pec belonging to Albanians who were suspected of collaborating with the Serbs.

“These attacks... were similar to what went on throughout this campaign, where Albanians who were seen to be siding with the Serb administration were taken out and their businesses either bombed and they themselves murdered,” Crosland told judges.

The trial continues.

Michael Farquhar is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.