Date: Fri, 21 May 1999 21:41:46 -0400

War Criminal, Ally, or Both?

>>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. <<

by Jeffrey Benner May 21, 1999

Ethnic Serbs flee ethnic cleansing by the Croatian army in 1995.

The Kosova Liberation Army (KLA)'s new chief of staff, Agim Ceku,
has been linked to two of the grizzliest 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

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).

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

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

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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