War Criminal, Ally, or Both?

Published on May 21, 1999, Mother Jones

Category: Meet the Muslim Albanian Leaders

The KLA's new leader, Agim Ceku, may have helped mastermind the most brutal ethnic-cleansing campaign in post-communist Yugoslavia's history. Now he's on NATO's side in the war over Kosovo.

The Kosova Liberation Army (KLA)'s new chief of staff, Agim Ceku, has been linked to two of the grisliest episodes of brutality in the ongoing war in the former Yugoslavia, perhaps even worse than the current Serb campaign against ethnic Albanians. Now he's on NATO's side in the war for Kosovo. Who is this man, and why is NATO making excuses on his behalf? Ceku joined the newly formed Croatian military (HV) in 1991 during that region's effort to secede from Yugoslavia. He quickly rose to the rank of brigadier general, and retired last February. Though it sounds lifted from a résumé, a short description of Ceku in Jane's Defense Weekly credits him with helping to orchestrate Operation Storm and the Medak offensive, which involved the cleansing of ethnic Serbs from the Krajina region of Croatia, the deliberate shelling of civilians, rape, and systematic arson. According to Jane's, “in 1993 Ceku masterminded the successful HV offensive at Medak, and in 1995 was one of the key planners of the successful 'Operation Storm,' in which the HV quickly defeated [its] Serb opponents.” Ceku also has some well-placed references to go along with that résumé: An unnamed retired U.S. military official told Jane's, “We were impressed by [Ceku's] overview of the battleground and the ability to always predict his enemy's next move.” In Operation Storm, a four-day offensive in August of 1995, the Croatian army regained control of the Krajina region, which was primarily inhabited by ethnic Serbs. Many analysts say Operation Storm was undertaken with the tacit approval of the West, and perhaps even with the assistance of U.S. military advisers (much the same way it is reportedly advising the KLA in Kosovo). Related Articles: The Symbolism of Destruction (8/4/99) Mystery Surrounds Gracko Massacre (7/30/99) Invisibe Threat: Depleted Uranium (6/23/99) Alternative News (Updated Regularly) More Kosovo Coverage According to an Amnesty International report, “Croatia: Impunity for killings after 'Storm,'” nearly the entire ethnic Serbian population of the region, estimated to be at least 180,000 people, fled in face of the attack. Hundreds of civilians were murdered, most of the victims being elderly and disabled persons who were unable to flee. The report estimates that 5,000 structures were torched by the advancing Croatian army. According to The New York Times, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia has determined that war crimes were indeed committed during Operation Storm. In a March 21, 1999 article, the Times revealed an unpublished report produced by the Tribunal. Among the report's assertions: “During the course of the military offensive, the Croatian armed forces and special police committed numerous violations of international humanitarian law.” The Medak offensive in 1993, which Jane's credits Ceku with "masterminding," is also known as the “Medak massacre.” While the name may not ring a bell for most readers in the U.S., it is remembered in Canada as that nation's largest military action since the Korean War. According to the book, Tested Mettle, Canadian peacekeepers in the “Medak Pocket” engaged Croatian soldiers in a firefight to stop them from terrorizing Serbian civilians. Four Canadians were wounded in the battle, which left nearly 30 Croatian soldiers dead. Excerpts of the book's account of the fighting at Medak were published in newspapers across Canada last November. Atrocities witnessed by Canadian soldiers are described in detail. “A drunken Croat soldier emerged from a building and staggered toward [a Canadian soldier],” begins one section. “A girl could be heard screaming inside the house. Draped on the drunken soldier's head was a pair of blood-soaked panties.” While details about his role in such horrors remain unconfirmed, the mere mention of Ceku's possible connection to war crimes is enough to put NATO on the defensive, especially since the U.S. has been linked with him in the past. During the May 14 NATO press briefing, a reporter asked Jamie Shea to comment on reports of Ceku's involvement in ethnic cleansing while he was serving in the Croatian military. “Well, I have always made it clear ... that NATO has no direct contacts with the KLA,” answered Shea. “Who they appoint as their leaders, that is entirely their own affair. I don't have any comment on that whatever.” However, unable to restrain himself, Shea did comment. Using a laughable chain of reasoning, he lay the blame for NATO's association with the KLA at the feet of their mutual arch enemy, Milosevic. “If Milosevic had not started a policy of brutality in Kosovo some years ago, the KLA would never have existed.” Shea said. “It is a very recent creation, and it is a creation of Belgrade, first and foremost.” Chillingly, Shea went on to imply that the Krajina atrocities during Operation Storm were a case of the Serbs getting what they deserved. “When you spoke about the Serbs who were driven from the Krajina, this is absolutely true,” he admitted. “But as somebody who remembers these events particularly well, do not forget that there were many, many Croats who were persecuted and also driven from their homes in that part of the world, when the Yugoslav national army moved there in 1991.” In fact, this sort of response from a Western official regarding atrocities committed by the Croatian army is hardly new. The West has long seen Croatia as a valuable ally against Milosevic, so misdeeds by the Croatian military have been downplayed by Western European and U.S. officials. According to the Times, American lawyers hired by the Pentagon argued at the International Criminal Tribunal against indicting the Croatian generals who led Operation Storm. The lawyers argued that only legitimate military targets were shelled during the attack. The following assessment, printed in the August 22, 1995 edition of The Washington Post, still rings true: “In the battle for international public opinion, Croatia has so far escaped serious criticism for Operation Storm despite increasing evidence of shootings of civilians and officially sanctioned arson of many Serb houses in the Krajina [region]. International attention has focused on rebel Serbs, who are being charged with digging mass graves near Srebrenica -- a U.N. 'safe area' in Bosnia that fell to a combined Yugoslav-Bosnian Serb assault in July.” While the Krajina battle is often cited as the turning point which brought opposing parties to the negotiating table in 1995, for Ceku it served as inspiration to make war. According to a BBC translation of a May 14 Croatian news report, Ceku issued a statement saying: “There is only one way out. And we have advocated it from the very beginning: a final defeat of the Serbian army and its expulsion from Kosovo; a defeat similar to the one they [the Yugoslav army] suffered in Croatia.”

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