BUS WITH SERB CIVILIANS BLOWN UP BY ALBANIAN TERRORISTS
LATEST DISCOVERIES BY WASHINGTON POST AND THE SUNDAY TIMES, July 29 2001
The main suspect who ran away from the US camp had been working for CIA
R. Jeffrey Smith
PRISTINA, Yugoslavia -- The aisles and seats on the five bright red buses leaving the Serbian city of Nis overflowed with 250 nervously excited Serbs -- students, parents, pensioners and children. Escorted by seven NATO armored vehicles, the travelers were making a rare journey across the border into Kosovo to visit friends and relatives on a religious holiday, the Serbian Orthodox Church's annual Day of the Dead.
Ahead, a small group of ethnic Albanians lay in wait. In a drainpipe buried under the main highway about half a mile inside Kosovo, near the village of Merdare, they had deposited 200 pounds of TNT. They then strung a detonation wire across nearby farmland to a hilltop a mile away where, sitting on a tree stump, they smoked cigarettes and waited for the convoy.
At a signal, one of the Albanians touched the wire's strands to a car battery, setting off the bomb just as the first bus drove over the pipe. Eleven people died, including four women and a 2-year-old boy; 18 other people were injured, some critically. The vehicle was blown high in the air, landing 45 feet away; some passengers were rocketed through the roof.
Investigators for the United Nations, who reconstructed this account of the Feb. 16 bus bombing, have called it perhaps the most heinous atrocity committed by ethnic Albanians against ethnic Serbs in Kosovo since NATO peacekeepers entered the province after the alliance's 1999 bombing campaign.
But efforts by U.N. police and courts to bring the perpetrators to justice have languished. One reason is that NATO intelligence has key information it has not shared with police investigators, a frequent occurrence in Kosovo's struggling law enforcement system, police say. NATO and the United Nations are often unwilling to disclose what they know, some officials contend, because they want to protect intelligence sources.
But sometimes, according to current and former U.N. officials, they also fear provoking ethnic Albanian militants, including some political leaders, who might turn on the 36,200 troops in the NATO-led peacekeeping force.
The bus incident has become a signal example of a failure by NATO and the United Nations to impose the rule of law in Kosovo and make all its citizens safe. Bombings, grenade attacks, house-burnings and other forms of intimidation remain daily events in Kosovo, most of them aimed at driving out the estimated 60,000 to 100,000 remaining members of the minority Serb population -- a reversal of the Serb repression of Albanians that preceded NATO's arrival.
Kosovo today is technically a province of the Yugoslav republic of Serbia but in fact is an international protectorate. U.N. officials administer the province; the peacekeeping force provides military muscle. Law enforcement is complicated by the frequently conflicting and overlapping jurisdiction of the peacekeeping troops and the 4,386 U.N. police. The police mandate is to solve crimes without fear or favor; top U.N. administrators and NATO commanders, on the other hand, openly worry first about keeping their troops safe.
British air force squadron leader Roy Brown, chief spokesman for the NATO-led peacekeeping force known as KFOR, said in response to questions about the bus case that the peacekeeping force is willing to "act against high-profile individuals" and frequently shares information with police. But it also must follow "constraints imposed by the national security considerations of the 39 nations that contribute to KFOR." He did not detail those constraints.
The challenge to police in the bus case is not determining who likely did it. NATO intelligence officers, privy to powerful eavesdropping systems and information from hundreds of paid informers, concluded months ago that a "Kosovar Albanian terrorist cell, approximately nine in number, had been responsible for the attack," according to a confidential U.N. report.
The bombing was carried out by three people to create "personal insecurity in the Serb population," the report said. Intelligence reports state that the group's leader and some of its members belong to the Kosovo Protection Corps, successor to the Kosovo Liberation Army, the ethnic Albanian rebel group that fought for Kosovo's independence from Serb-run Yugoslavia before the arrival of NATO troops.
NATO shared this general information with U.N. police, leading them to arrest four suspects in March with the help of several hundred NATO special forces troops in well-coordinated raids. But NATO has refused to provide more detailed information that would help in prosecutions.
U.N. police and officials of the court system complain that NATO and top U.N. administrators have been slow to obtain critical support from abroad: They want the suspects' cell phone calling records but are still waiting for the information to arrive from Monaco, which maintains a clearinghouse for cellular calls in Kosovo. Similarly, complete results of DNA lab tests on bomb fragments and other evidence recovered at the scene have not yet been returned by German forensic experts.
What was once a highly publicized international task force of 18 investigators on the case has dwindled to just two or three overworked people who give it part-time attention.
The police also complain that they are hamstrung by U.N. rules that prohibit the use of paid informers and by U.N. court rules that bar the use of wiretapping evidence.
Today a conviction in the bus bombing looks increasingly unlikely, according to six people involved in the case who spoke in recent interviews.
The man against whom police had developed the best case, Florim Ejupi, escaped in May from a U.S. military prison in Kosovo, using a wire cutter allegedly passed to him in a spinach pie baked by his family. And charges against the three other suspects will be dropped if new evidence is not produced within the next month, U.N. officials say. A three-judge international panel has already called for their release on grounds of insufficient evidence.
Ties to Organized Crime Alleged
Officials say the bus case underlines one of the fundamental problems of building a stable, law-abiding society in Kosovo: frequent criminal activity by members of the Kosovo Protection Corps (KPC). The group, made up of former fighters in the Kosovo Liberation Army, is officially a civil emergency service, but is widely seen among people here as the nucleus for the future army of an independent Kosovo.
According to classified NATO reports, informers claim that KPC members not only attack Serbs but are also involved in illegal trade in prostitutes, cigarettes, fuel, weapons and appliances. "Many KPC members, in some cases high-ranking KPC officials, have ties with criminal organizations," said one classified NATO report prepared late last year.
The informants have alleged that commanders in the 5,000-member KPC have profited personally, for example, by forcibly seizing vacant apartments and reselling them or by extorting money from private companies, according to Western intelligence officials.
Muharrem Mahmutaj, a spokesman for the KPC, said the group was unaware of wrongdoing but welcomed investigation. He noted, moreover, that the KPC itself "is not being accused."
The United States has become the protection corps' most important foreign patron, providing at least $13 million in State Department and Pentagon aid in the past two years, covering more than a third of the group's total expenses. In May, when three officials of the KPC were arrested on charges of killing another KPC official -- who was allegedly cooperating with NATO to fight corruption -- the U.S. mission in Kosovo released a statement saying that "these arrests do not in any way reflect badly on the KPC and its important role in Kosovo."
President Bush, who visited Kosovo on Tuesday, took the first step in June toward distancing Washington from the group. He signed an order banning five of its leaders from entering the United States on grounds that they had "undermined peace and stability." The five included two top commanders of the KPC's six zones in Kosovo and the corps' chief of staff. Exactly what they did has not been disclosed to U.N. police or prosecutors. NATO officials have searched some of the men's homes and turned over "a large quantity of documents," according to Brown, the spokesman for KFOR.
Christer Karphammar, a Swedish jurist who was first a prosecutor and then Kosovo's first Western judge, said he directly knows of several cases in which U.N. and KFOR senior officials opposed or blocked prosecution of former Kosovo Liberation Army members, including some now in the KPC. "That means some of the former [KLA] had an immunity. The investigations were stopped on a high level," he said. Karphammar, who left the United Nations in April, said that throughout his 18-month tenure there, "the judiciary was not allowed to work independently."
The reason, he said, was that NATO and U.N. officials feared they "would put their lives at risk" by acting against former members of the rebel group.
Several sources cited the example of an alleged assault in the fall by Sami Lushtaku, a former KLA commander who became a regional commander of the KPC. According to police reports, Lushtaku and his bodyguard pistol-whipped an ethnic Albanian doctor sitting near them at a soccer game, fracturing the man's skull.
NATO forces, including helicopters, were mobilized to arrest Lushtaku after a witness came forward, but at the last moment the arrest was halted at the insistence of high-ranking U.N. and NATO officials, according to three sources with knowledge of the incident.
Jock Covey, a U.S. diplomat serving as deputy head of the U.N. mission in Kosovo, was instrumental in blocking Lushtaku's arrest on at least two occasions, the sources said. He told colleagues that if Lushtaku, who is popular in Kosovo, were jailed, it could destabilize the province on the eve of municipal elections and bolster hard-liners in Serbian parliamentary elections in December. Covey, who has left the United Nations for private industry, declined to comment.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe cited the example in a report last month -- without identifying Lushtaku -- alleging "unequal treatment" of those accused of criminal activity.
Karphammar, the former U.N. judge, said NATO and U.N. officials also intervened in February 2000 to force the release of more than a dozen former members of the rebel army, including a man who was wanted by Interpol. The ethnic Albanians had been detained by French forces for organizing a riot in the northern city of Mitrovica. But French intelligence officers refused to give a local court information they collected in interviews. All the suspects were released "before the real court investigation started, because of a threat by rebel leaders that if they were not released, KFOR soldiers would come under threat," Karphammar said.
Tensions between police and NATO often surface in criminal investigations, sources say. Several police officers have reported being shooed away from crime scenes by NATO intelligence officers who insist on conducting the first interviews with key witnesses and then withhold the results.
After the bus bombing, NATO paved over the crater on the Nis highway within hours, an act that several police officers said destroyed potential evidence.
'Smoke and Blood Everywhere'
Sometime before the blast, NATO officials received intelligence information about a threat to movements of Serbs, two sources said. The day the buses set out, soldiers were assigned to check the road for explosives, but they were distracted by the presence of two men on a nearby hilltop and did not complete the task; their radio malfunctioned when they tried to ask the convoy to wait.
Gorica Scepanovic, a passenger that day, still finds it difficult to talk about what followed. "It all happened within a few seconds -- panic, shock, and when we opened our eyes, smoke and blood everywhere. It was dripping from all over the bus, and at that moment, you were not sure if it is yours or someone else's. . . . The first thing I saw on my way to the door was someone's leg hanging from the ceiling."
Two of the four men who were later arrested worked at the Pristina headquarters of the KPC. Family members of Jusuf Veliu, a KPC captain, deny the charges but say that he was traumatized by Serb atrocities against Albanians during the war. "He saw bad things during the war, including dead kids," a relative said.
The families of the others arrested, KPC Col. Cele Gashi and shopkeeper Avdi Behluli, also asserted that they are innocent. Behluli's family said he was arrested and beaten by Serbs before the war, and display pictures showing he is now friendly with top KPC officials and Pristina's Albanian police chief.
All three men in custody have denied knowing Ejupi, the 23-year-old who escaped from the U.S. military prison. Ejupi had been arrested twice in Germany, once for stealing gasoline and once for beating another ethnic Albanian. But police say that Ejupi's cell phone, seized during his arrest, indicates he spoke to one of the other men around the time of the bombing.
When he was arrested, Ejupi told police, "I don't want to say anything and I don't know what to say," according to documents provided by his lawyer. But even without his testimony, police found interesting evidence. On a cigarette butt discarded at the tree stump, they found DNA that matched the sample in his German arrest file.
U.S. Army officials say Ejupi's escape on May 14 from Camp Bondsteel involved about 10 minutes' work of cutting through two wire fences. The breakout was hardly a novel event in Kosovo. More than 30 defendants, including many indicted for ethnic crimes, freed themselves from other prisons last year.
Since then, the Bondsteel prison has added more guard towers and lights; no one has been disciplined for the escape.
Baton Haxhiu, editor of the ethnic Albanian newspaper Koha Ditore, called the bombing "the worst crime of postwar Kosovo" and said it has aroused widespread disgust. Albanians and Serbs alike want rule of law, he said. In an editorial, he said the police had been "castrated" and blamed ethnic Albanian political leaders for imposing a "code of silence" about the crime.
But there are no signs that violence is waning. A month after the bus was destroyed, NATO troops found a similar device along a road south of Pristina, near an area inhabited by Ashkalis, another ethnic group that Albanian nationalists would like to expel.
That the bomb was not aimed at Serbs gave little comfort to that community. Bishop Artemije, head of the Serb National Council in Kosovo, said recently that his people still have "neither the right to life, nor to work, and freedom of movement."
© 2001 The Washington Post Company
A SIMPLE mistake by British soldiers serving in Kosovo, combined with a failure in basic communications, led to the deaths of 11 Serbs and injury to more than 40 others when Albanian terrorists bombed a convoy of buses.
Sensitive information gathered three months beforehand had pinpointed the likely location of the bomb on a mile-long stretch of road near the boundary between Kosovo and the rest of Serbia.
As a result of the intelligence gathered by British police officers serving as volunteers in Kosovo, detailed searches of the road were carried out every day. The searches were made by British soldiers patrolling with Nato's peacekeeeping force.
However, last February 16, the day of the attack, a series of factors coincided to change the routine of the weekly convoy which carried civilians from Serbian enclaves within Kosovo across the border for shopping and family visits. A critical half-mile stretch of road, including two culverts beneath it, went unchecked by a British patrol.
According to the British Army in Kosovo, a failure of communications equipment between the search team and a second unit controlling the movement of buses resulted in the convoy, containing more than 250 civilians, being allowed through before the bomb checks were completed.
"It was more than a mistake," said Captain Simon Bergman, the British Army spokesman in Kosovo. "Circumstances conspired to allow the terrorists to carry out these murders. We deeply regret what happened and have taken measures to ensure that lessons have been learnt and it will not happen again."
The murky aftermath of the so-called Nis Express bombing was further obscured when the chief suspect "escaped" in bizarre circumstances from a high- security American prison in the province.
The detective who headed the investigation into the attack has said he does not believe the suspect, a Kosovar Albanian who is also wanted in Germany on manslaughter and attempted murder charges, left the American Bondsteel base unaided.
"My opinion is he did not escape," said Detective Stu Kellock, former head of the United Nations Kosovo Mission's regional serious crime squad. "I thought a prisoner could not just walk away from Bondsteel. In my opinion he was taken elsewhere for questioning or something and I still do not understand why we, the police in the investigation who held jurisdiction, were not involved."
UN sources believe the suspect, Florim Ejupi, who was wearing a bright orange prison uniform when he vanished and was said to have cut his way through four sets of barbed wire fences with a simple tool, had been working for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). His trial would have been a serious embarrassment, they claim.
UN officials want to know why Ejupi and three other men arrested on March 20 were taken on May 3 from their detention centre in Pristina, the capital, to Bondsteel, the sprawling base visited last week by President George W Bush.
The controversy stretches back to last November, when the first report about a possible attack on the Nis Express was made by the UN mission's police. The intelligence specified that a bomb would be placed in a culvert on the first stretch of road inside Kosovo. The area was in the British sector and was patrolled at the time by the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment - initially by teams of men hidden in surrounding fields.
The commanders later decided on highly visible open patrols. The plan was for a twice-daily check of 27 culverts and 35 other vulnerable areas. Each culvert was given a letter of the alphabet and the teams concentrated on the five closest to Gate 3 - letters A to E.
By mid-February the Princess of Wales Regiment had been replaced by 2 Royal Tank Regiment. On February 16 the soldiers were suddenly told at 11.05am that the Nis Express was ready to leave, 55 minutes earlier than expected. Four culverts had yet to be checked. Two more were quickly inspected and then two men were seen walking along a nearby hill. The search team went to intercept them.
According to Bergman, the British soldiers manning Gate 3 advised the search team that the Nis Express was now on its way. "But there was a problem with communications," Bergman explained. No warning was given that the last two culverts had not been inspected.
Bozidar Nedeljkovic, a 56- year-old electrician, will never forget what happened next as he travelled back from Nis to his home village of Lapjle Selo. For Serbs, February 16 is known as Zadusnica, when the graves of relatives are visited. Nedeljkovic was on his way to his parents' cemetery. At the border, everyone on board five buses was ordered off and searched. Luggage was unloaded and the vehicles were checked by sniffer dogs.
The Serbs became agitated, demanding to be allowed through so they could reach their relatives' gravesides by noon, as tradition demanded.
As his bus moved forward, Nedeljkovic was thinking of the flowers he would take to his parents' graveside when the road erupted. Some 150lb of high explosive concealed in culvert B ripped the front from the bus and scattered bodies and luggage over a wide area.
Nedeljkovic found himself lying on the road outside the vehicle, bleeding profusely from torso injuries. His wristwatch had stopped at 11.12am.
Chris Albiston, commissioner of UN police in Kosovo and deputy commissioner of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, described the incident as the biggest single outrage of the past 12 months. In the aftermath four suspects were arrested, including Ejupi.
The investigation has been thrown into disarray by the escape of Ejupi, however. The evidence against the other three alleged accomplices is considered circumstantial and a panel of three international judges sitting in Pristina has already indicated that there is not sufficient evidence to hold them.
As for the whereabouts of Ejupi, his lawyer, Toma Gashe, smiled last week when asked if he was still alive. "I have heard nothing from him, neither has his family. I know I would like to because he has not paid me for my work," he said.
Albanian extremists targeted civilian buses before