Freedom Fighters or...

Truth in facts and testimonies

Structure and Strategy of the KLA

Extract from the Human Rights Watch Report
Under Orders - War Crimes in Kosovo, October 2001

Since World War II, small groups of militant Albanians had sought Kosovo's independence from Yugoslavia, although their activity and impact were minimal. Some of these organizations, such as the Levizja Popullore per Republiken e Kosoves (People's Movement for the Republic of Kosovo) and later the Levizja Kombetare per Clirimin e Kosoves (National Movement for the Liberation of Kosovo) gained strength in the 1980s, especially after the government's crackdown in 1981. Support was provided _by Kosovar Albanians living abroad, as well as through illegal activities by Kosovar Albanians in the Balkans and Western Europe.

Throughout the 1990s, the majority of the population pursued the peaceful politics of Ibrahim Rugova, but a fringe element of militants was active in some areas, especially Drenica. As repression in Kosovo continued, the movement gradually gained members and, as noted above, the initial fragments of the Kosovo Liberation Army were, by 1996, attacking police outposts in Kosovo. The flow of weapons from Albania in 1997, after the government there fell, greatly assisted the nascent insurgency.

A crucial turning point came with the police crackdown in Drenica in February and March 1998, in which more than eighty civilians were killed. The brutality of the Serbian government radicalized the Albanian community. Many villagers turned to the KLA either out of frustration with Rugova's ineffective nonviolent approach or because they saw the KLA as their only means of protection. At the same time, some villages clearly did not encourage the presence of the armed group, since they feared it would provoke a government response, which it often did.

Throughout early 1998, the KLA was primarily a disorganized collection of armed villagers, often built around family structures, without a clear chain of command. Strong regionalism dominated the organization, as evidenced by the post-war splintering of the insurgency. Operational areas raised their own funds and purchased their own weapons.

This changed gradually throughout the year as the KLA secured a steadier arms supply and organized itself into a more centralized structure.133 Ethnic Albanians with experience in the Yugoslav Army or its predecessor in the former Yugoslavia, the Yugoslav National Army (Jugoslovenska Narodna Armija, or JNA), gradually joined the insurgency. Contacts with Western governments, mostly through KDOM or the KVM, were strengthened. The ceasefire period from December 1998 to March 1999 was used to strengthen the central command and to reorganize operations. By March 1999, the KLA was a better organized rebel force, albeit with strong personalities in the various regions who did not always agree with one another. A military police force and military courts were more firmly established with detention facilities, along with civilian political structures that issued decrees in areas under KLA control.

By 1999, the main political representative of the KLA was Hashim Thaci (a.k.a. Snake), who represented the insurgency at political negotiations such as the Rambouillet conference in February 1999. In April 1999, Agim Ceku, an ethnic Albanian former brigadier general in the Croatian Army with close ties to the United States government and military, was appointed head of the KLA's General Staff, making him the chief military commander.134 He replaced Syleman Selimi (a.k.a. Sultan). Both Ceku and Thaci sat on the KLA's General Staff (Stafi i Pergjithshem), the main decision-making body of eighteen people, along with many of the other key members of the insurgency.135

The KLA was organized into seven operational zones, each with a regional commander and chief of staff: Drenica (Glogovac, Srbica, Malisevo, and Klina municipalities), Shala (Kosovska Mitrovica), Dukagjin (Pec, Prizren, Decani, and Djakovica municipalities), Llap (Podujevo), Nerodine (Urosevac), Kacanik, and Pastrik. Prominent among the regional commanders were Ramush Haradinaj in the Dukagjin zone, Ekrem Rexha (a.k.a. Commander Drini) in the Pastrik zone,136 Rrustem Mustafa (a.k.a. Remi) in the Llap zone, and Sami Lushtaku in Drenica. Each region had brigades and companies, usually based around a village or series of villages.137 Rexhep Selimi was head of the military police and Kadri Veseli (a.k.a. Luli) was head of the KLA's secret service, that later became known as the Sherbimi Informativ i Kosoves (SHIK).

Given the regional divisions within the KLA, a central chain of command was sometimes difficult to discern. Even within the operational zones, it was not always clear how much control the various commanders had over their troops.

On the other hand, as 1998 progressed, regionally-based and central command structures were increasingly discernible. Local commanders initiated military actions and issued decrees within their areas of responsibility. The military police and courts were functioning, albeit haphazardly, in areas of KLA control. The General Staff coordinated military actions and political activities to an extent throughout Kosovo, a structure which allowed decisions to be transmitted down to the fighters. It also coordinated logistical and financial support from Albania and the Albanian diaspora in Western Europe and the United States.

Although there were often examples to the contrary, KLA fighters in late 1998 and early 1999 displayed discipline, manning checkpoints, checking identification papers, and adhering to orders from their commanders. A KLA office in Pristina (allowed to function by the authorities) distributed passes to allow foreign journalists and human rights researchers access to areas under KLA control.

Despite these structures, there are no known cases of KLA soldiers having been punished for committing abuses against civilians or government forces no longer taking active part in hostilities. It is clear that in certain cases, such as the September 1998 murder by KLA forces of thirty-four people near Glodjane, that the local commanders must have known, if not directly ordered, the killings. There were, however, reported but unconfirmed cases of KLA soldiers being disciplined by their own commanders for having harassed or shot at foreign journalists.

In interviews and public statements, KLA spokesmen repeatedly expressed the organization's willingness to respect the rules of war. In an interview given to the Albanian-language newspaper Koha Ditore in July 1998, KLA spokesman Jakup Krasniqi said:

From the start, we had our own internal rules for our operations. These clearly lay down that the KLA recognizes the Geneva Conventions and the conventions governing the conduct of war.138

KLA Communique number 51, issued by the KLA General Headquarters on August 26, 1998, stated that, "The KLA as an institutionalized and organized army, is getting increasingly professional and ready to fight to victory."139

In November 1998, Human Rights Watch representatives had a meeting in Banja village near Malisevo with Hashim Thaci and Fatmir Limaj to discuss the KLA's commitment to the laws of war generally and, specifically, the treatment of Serbian civilians in KLA custody. The KLA representatives informed Human Rights Watch that the KLA had a soldiers' code of conduct but that it could not be made public. Disciplinary measures for abusive soldiers were in place, they said, but no details were provided.

The precise size of the KLA was difficult to calculate given its loose organization, the participation of village defense forces, and the continual ebb and flow of Albanians from abroad. Perhaps the best indication comes from the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which was mandated after the war with registering and assisting former combatants. According to the IOM, as of March 2000, it had registered 25,723 ex-combatants, although it's certainly possible that this number was inflated by noncombatants looking for assistance.140 Some international volunteers are known to have fought with the KLA.141

After the Drenica killings in March 1998, major fundraising for the KLA was conducted among the Albanian diaspora communities in Europe and the United States, with money flowing through the Homeland Calling Fund. Various reports in the media have also linked the KLA's fundraising to drug trafficking, money laundering, and migrant smuggling.142

Lightly armed in comparison to Serbian and Yugoslav forces, the KLA remained a mobile guerrilla force throughout 1998 and 1999, choosing mostly to attack police or army checkpoints or lay ambushes, and then retreat. The only large scale offensive, an attack on Orahovac in July 1998, failed miserably, as the government retook the town after two days.

Throughout the conflict, the KLA engaged in military tactics that put ethnic Albanian civilians at risk; specifically, attacking Serbian checkpoints or patrols near ethnic Albanian villages, exposing civilians to revenge attacks. It is a troubling fact that the 1998 and 1999 Kosovo war was marked by well-publicized massacres of civilians, such as in Prekaz, Gornje Obrinje, and Racak, which were all turning points in the war. All of the evidence shows that these crimes were committed by habitually brutal Serbian and Yugoslav forces, but it is clear that the KLA understood the political benefit of publicizing civilian deaths.

A number of top KLA officials and officers hold important positions in post-war Kosovo. Hashim Thaci became head of the Democratic Party of Kosovo. Agim Ceku was named head of the Kosovo Protection Corps (Trupat e Mbrojtjes se Kosoves (TMK) in Albanian), the successor to the KLA, where some other former KLA commanders also hold important positions, such as Sylejman Selimi. Ramush Haridinaj left the Kosovo Protection Corps in 2000 to form a political party, Alliance for the Future of Kosova. Some KLA commanders and fighters have continued their military activities in Macedonia with the National Liberation Army (Ushtria Clirimtare Kombetare).


133 In 1998, a splinter group tried to form a parallel fighting force: FARK-Forcave Armatosure e Republikes e Kosovos (Armed Forces of the Republic of Kosova), under the command of Bujar Bukoshi, prime minister of the self-proclaimed Kosovo government. FARK was disbanded and, by March 1999, its members were fighting alongside the KLA.
134 The British press published unconfirmed reports in October 1999 that Ceku was under investigation by the war crimes tribunal for crimes committed by Croatian Army forces against ethnic Serbs in 1993. The tribunal neither confirmed nor denied the speculation, in accordance with its policy of not commenting on investigations. See, "Kosovo Commander Denies War Crimes in Croatia," Agence France Presse, October 12, 1999.
135 Other members of the KLA's General Staff included Jakup Krasniqi, Azem Syla, Xhavit Haliti, Rame Buja, and Sokol Bashota, all in the political directorate, as well as Fatmir Limaj and Rexhep Selimi.
136 Rexha was gunned down by unknown assailants in front of his home in Prizren on May 8, 2000.
137 For details on some of the KLA personalities, see reports by the International Crisis Group, Critical Implementation Issues and a "Who's Who" of Key Players, March 1999, Who's Who in Kosovo, August 1999, and What Happened to the KLA?, March 2000. See also Zoran Kusovac, "The KLA: Braced to Defend and Control," Jane's Intelligence Review, April 7, 1999.
138 Koha Ditore, July 12, 1998.
139 KLA Communique Nr. 51, as published in Koha Ditore, August 26, 1998.
140 "Kosovo Reintegration Efforts are Bearing Fruits," IOM release, March 16, 2000.
141 The demilitarization agreement signed by the KLA on June 20, 1999, tended to confirm that non-Kosovo Albanians had participated in the KLA. Point 23(e) stipulated the withdrawal from Kosovo of "all UCK personnel, who are not of local origin, whether or not they are legally within Kosovo, including individual advisors, freedom fighters, trainers, volunteers, and personnel from neighboring and other States." (The "Undertaking of Demilitarization and Transformation by the UCK" is available at www.kforonline.com/resources/documents/uck.htm, March 20, 2001.)
142 For details, see, Roger Boyes and Eske Wright, "Drugs Money Linked to the Kosovo Rebels," The Times (London), March 24, 1999; Frank Viviano, "Separatists Supporting Themselves with Traffic in Narcotics," San Francisco Chronicle, June 10, 1994; "Speculation Plentiful, Facts Few About Kosovo Separatist Group," Baltimore Sun, March 6, 1998; Zoran Kusovac, "Another Balkans Bloodbath?-Part One, Jane's Intelligence Review, February 1, 1998; "TV report says Kosovo Albanians involved in Illegal Business in Germany," BBC Worldwide Monitoring, AND news agency, Berlin, June 28, 1999