LA Times
Kosovo's ethnic Albanians face new peril: themselves

PAUL WATSON

Saturday, August 19, 2000


ISTOK, Yugoslavia--They survived Serbian rampages. They lived through a NATO air war waged in their name. But now some Kosovo Albanians are being targeted by the very people they had trusted--their own.

A dirty war among ethnic Albanian political parties has been escalating for nearly a year. And foreign peacekeeping troops and police, citing a lack of cooperation from witnesses, have done little to stop it.

It was easy for the men who came to kill Shaban Manaj. They called at his house in this western Kosovo town and said they needed a lawyer to defend a man in jail on a minor charge. The ethnic Albanian politician climbed into the front passenger seat of their red BMW and was never seen alive again.

Spanish peacekeeping troops found his body Aug. 5 in the almost deserted village of Ozrim, about nine miles from where the two ethnic Albanians had kidnapped him 10 days earlier.

Manaj founded the local branch of the moderate Democratic League of Kosovo in 1990 when its pacifist leader, Ibrahim Rugova, began the painful struggle for independence from Yugoslavia. Serbian police arrested Manaj several times over the years to try to silence him.

The ethnic Albanian thugs succeeded where the Serbs failed. They dumped Manaj's body in a ditch and set fire to it, just as Serbian war criminals had done to many of their ethnic Albanian victims.

"It is very difficult," Manaj's elder brother, Tahir, said, trying to understand how it has come to this. "What makes it more difficult is the burning of the body. After all that, how could he be burned?"

Manaj was one of at least five local leaders of Rugova's party attacked in recent days, victims of political violence that has spread since last year across Kosovo, a separatist province of Serbia, the dominant of Yugoslavia's two republics.

In one of the most recent incidents under investigation, the wife of one of Rugova's party officials was killed in an explosion at her home in the southern Kosovo town of Dragas on Aug. 9.

Other political parties say their members have been targeted too, but Rugova's supporters are suffering the most, according to U.N. police reports.

Moderate Party Ahead in Run-Up to Vote

Rugova's popularity, and credibility, dropped sharply after he met with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic at the height of NATO's airstrikes last year, yet polls still show his party leading in the run-up to elections set for Oct. 28.

Long before NATO got involved in Kosovo--spending millions of dollars and dropping thousands of bombs to protect ethnic Albanians from a vicious Serbian crackdown--the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army had called Rugova and his party traitors because they insisted on peaceful protest against Serbian rule. His perceived willingness to compromise also makes him a target for radicals.

Hashim Thaci, who became political chief of the KLA with strong support from Washington, now has his own party, the Democratic Party of Kosovo. The party is Rugova's main opposition, and U.N. police are looking at Thaci's supporters as potential suspects in the political bloodshed.

At least some of Thaci's supporters have been under suspicion since November, when men dressed in black who said they were acting on orders from his "Ministry of Order" kidnapped and viciously beat Sinan Gashi, a leader of Rugova's party in Glogovac, a pro-Thaci town.

Two days earlier, men in black uniforms claiming to be police led another of Rugova's local party leaders, Haki Imeri, 52, from his home near Srbica, just down the road from Glogovac. He was later found dead, with four bullets to the back of the head.

Ramush Haradinaj, once one of Thaci's top commanders in the KLA, is now one of his biggest political opponents as leader of the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo, which also is suspected of carrying out political vendettas.

Haradinaj was wounded July 7 when a rocket-propelled grenade blasted the car he was in with a relative, a local commander of the Kosovo Protection Corps. The corps was set up as a civil defense unit to give former KLA guerrillas new jobs dealing with forest fires and other natural disasters, but it is struggling to fend off accusations of human rights abuses.

Villager Sadik Musa, a Rugova supporter, admitted firing at Haradinaj's car but said he was only defending himself after Haradinaj and his men attacked with automatic rifles.

Both Thaci and Haradinaj have denied any link to political violence, and they publicly espouse tolerance toward their ethnic Albanian rivals as well as minorities, such as Serbs.

Haradinaj had a reputation as a ruthless fighter when he commanded KLA forces in western Kosovo, one of the province's bloodiest battlegrounds in the KLA's war with the Serbs.

Children Weep Over Father's Casket

When peace came, Manaj's family had to dig his grave in the same soil.

Last week, his coffin stood on the back patio of the home he spent 16 years building, next to a garden lush with apple and plum trees. The casket was covered with flowers and draped with the Albanian flag, a symbol of the independence struggle that brought him into Rugova's party a decade ago.

His five children wept over the casket, all except the youngest, 5-year-old Fortesa, who sat in the arms of her mother, Fatmushe, 45, not sure what was happening. With her small finger, she wiped away her mother's tears.

Around a corner of the house, Manaj's cramped office was just as he had left it. A yellow manual typewriter sat on the desk, next to a pile of carbon paper and a stack of files. A blue-and-white towel hung from a nail next to the door.

"From high school to his last day, he was never a materialist," Manaj's brother said after peering through the locked glass door. "He always worked for the people--and only the people."

U.N. police say it's difficult to find the perpetrators of Kosovo's political killings--or even to come up with suspects--because witnesses either refuse to cooperate or they change their stories, often after threats. Manaj's relatives said they had no idea who might have wanted him dead.

"It's very unclear for us," his brother said, weakly shaking his head. "I can't say."

Blood feuds are not new to Kosovo Albanian politics. Yet, just as Serbs complained that foreign troops and police were slow in reacting to ethnic Albanian attacks against them in the wake of the air war, ethnic Albanians now blame the U.N. for letting political extremists get away with murder.

Last fall, prominent members of Rugova's party were being kidnapped, assaulted and killed, while party offices were bombed. But Kosovo's U.N. administrator, Frenchman Bernard Kouchner, set up a special unit to investigate and punish political crimes only this month.

Randy Ostrander, a police officer from Washington state, is on the front line of Kosovo's dirty war as commander of the U.N. police in Srbica. About 70,000 people live on his beat in the radical Drenica Valley, birthplace of the KLA and now a Thaci stronghold.

Of the 15 murders reported to Ostrander's force since he took charge in September, all but a few--such as the murder of two local Serbs--appear to be politically motivated, he said.

Ostrander said he is certain that the political violence is organized, and he promised: "When the time is right, you're going to see a lot of arrests coming down."

But he has just 44 officers, seven of them Americans, even though the U.N.'s plan calls for 100 foreign cops in the Srbica zone, long one of the most dangerous in Kosovo.

Ostrander knows that U.N. police are likely targets if they arrest people suspected of ordering and carrying out the political killings. His men have already found a machine gun in an apartment block overlooking his office after ethnic Albanians with walkie-talkies were spotted on the building's roof.

"It's a well-known fact that when people come in here to complain, they are being watched," Ostrander said in his office Thursday. "These people have come right out and told us. There are many times when they want to meet outside the station because they fear that they're going to be targeted for one reason or another.

"There's been no direct act of violence taken against the [U.N.] civilian police--yet," Ostrander added. "But that does not mean that will not happen. Several of my officers from other contingents are nervous. Some are scared, especially at night.

"They're afraid that if they go out and do a normal traffic stop, the subjects in the car could be armed with rocket-propelled grenades or Kalashnikov rifles, and all we have is pistols."

Sejdi Koca, 63, was driving home from Srbica on Aug. 1 when a gunman opened fire from behind some bushes. A bullet grazed Koca's throat and hit his right shoulder.

Koca is acting head of Rugova's party branch in Srbica and was a close colleague of Imeri, the party leader who was killed last year. Like Imeri, Koca was used to the risks of politics in Kosovo. The Serbs burned his house twice during offensives, in the fall of 1998 and the spring of 1999, and he was also kidnapped for seven days by KLA fighters.

"This is much more painful because, from childhood, we knew who the Serbs were and could never expect anything good from them," Koca said as he reclined on a cushion in his sitting room. "But we never expected we [Albanians] could do this to ourselves."

Koca thinks that the intelligence service of neighboring Albania has a hand in Kosovo's bloodletting, and he accused Thaci of doing too little to stop it. But Koca is still determined to run for election to Srbica's council in October.

He didn't surrender to the Serbs, he said, and isn't about to give in to thugs among his own people.

"But our members are a little bit scared because the people had only one cause: to be freed from Serbia. This black evil, they never imagined," Koca said. "The population, in general, is not ready to fight this."



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