KLA commanders purged ranks to thwart rivals, sources allege

Thaci and aides directed arrests and assassinations, officers and diplomats say

Peace In Yugoslavia

June 25, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

The senior commanders of the Kosovo Liberation Army carried out assassinations, arrests and purges within their ranks to thwart potential rivals, say current and former commanders in the rebel army and some Western diplomats.

The campaign, in which as many as a half-dozen top rebel commanders were shot dead, was directed by Hashim Thaci and two of his lieutenants, Azem Syla and Xhavit Haliti, the officials said. Thaci denied through a spokesman that he had been responsible for killings.

Although the United States has long been wary of the KLA, the rebel group has become the main ethnic Albanian power in Kosovo.

After the war, the United States and other NATO powers have effectively made Thaci and the KLA partners in rebuilding Kosovo. The agreement NATO signed with Thaci envisions turning the KLA into a civilian police force and leaves open the possibility that the KLA could become a provisional army modeled on the National Guard.

Thaci, 30, has named a government, with himself as prime minister, and denounced Ibrahim Rugova, who for nearly a decade was the self-styled president of Kosovo and ran a successful campaign of nonviolent protest after the Serbs stripped Kosovo of its autonomy in 1989.

While none of the KLA officials interviewed saw Thaci or his aides execute anyone, they recounted, and in some cases said they had witnessed, incidents in which Thaci's rivals had been killed shortly after he or one of his aides had threatened them with death.

"When the war started, everyone wanted to be the chief," said Rifat Haxhijaj, 30, a former lieutenant in the Yugoslav army who left the rebel movement in September and now lives in Switzerland. "For the leadership, this was never just a war against Serbs -- it was also a struggle for power."

Thaci's representative in Switzerland, Jashae Salihu, denied accounts of assassinations. "These kind of reports are untrue," he said. "Neither Thaci nor anyone else from the KLA is involved in this kind of activity. Our goal has been to establish a free Kosovo and nothing more."

State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said he could not exclude the possibility that the rebel leaders were linked to the killings. But he said department officials had checked a wide range of sources in the past 24 hours and could not confirm the accusations.

When the uprising began, and money and volunteers flooded into Albania from the 700,000 Kosovar Albanians living in Europe, Thaci and Haliti found themselves in charge of thousands of fighters and tens of millions of dollars.

In April 1998, a KLA commander who transported many of the weapons, Ilir Konushevci, was ambushed and killed on the road outside Tropoja in northern Albania. A few days earlier, in a heated meeting with senior commanders, he had accused Haliti of misusing funds, according to commanders who were present.

Other killings of rebel commanders and political rivals ascribed to Thaci are attributed to a struggle to consolidate control and eliminate potential challengers.

"Cadavers have never been an obstacle to Thaci's career," said Bujar Bukoshi, the prime minister in exile in Rugova's administration, which is often at odds with the KLA. One Western diplomat, citing intelligence reports, said that Thaci planned an unsuccessful assassination attempt on Bukoshi last May.

American officials also had reports that the KLA killed another potential rival, Ahmet Krasniqi, but said there were also subsequent, conflicting reports from the region that he was killed by disaffected members of his own unit.

After Krasniqi's death Sept. 21, former KLA commanders said, the killings, purges and arrests accelerated. KLA police, dressed in distinctive black fatigues, detained anyone who appeared hostile to Thaci. Many of these people were beaten.

One commander, Blerim Kuci, was taken away in October to a KLA jail and hauled before a revolutionary court. He was held for weeks on charges that he was a Serb collaborator and then suddenly released in the face of a Serbian offensive and allowed to rejoin the fight.

As NATO bombs fell on Kosovo in April, two outspoken commanders, Agim Ramadani, a captain in the former Yugoslav army, and Sali Ceku, were killed, each in an alleged Serbian ambush.

Although a former senior rebel officer in Tirana, Albania, said that Thaci was responsible, a Western diplomat contends that Ceku was killed by a Serbian sniper. He said his contacts indicated that Ramadani was killed in battle, but those contacts did not mention an ambush, or politically motivated killing, in either case.

Pub Date: 6/25/99

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