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  • Published in Opinion

Agim Ceku commanded “ethnic cleansing” operations in Yugoslavia in the 1990s, then headed an organization labeled “terrorist” by a senior US official. But top Dems made him their man in Kosovo.

UPDATE: After international intervention, Ceku was reportedly ordered released on Thursday.

A US-trained paramilitary figure from the Balkans with a lengthy history with leading Clinton-era Democrats, including some now in the Obama administration, has been arrested in Europe on an Interpol warrant for war crimes. Agim Ceku, an Albanian from Kosovo, is a former Croatian Army General who was trained by the private US security firm Military Professional Resources Incorporated (MPRI) during the Clinton Administration. Ceku, backed by the US, would go on to become the “prime minister” of Kosovo despite the fact that he was responsible for some of the worst acts of “ethnic cleansing” in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s and was the leader of a paramilitary organization with drug trade ties, which Clinton’s top envoy to Kosovo called a “terrorist” organization.

Ceku was detained in Bulgaria on the basis of an Interpol warrant issued by Serbia as he crossed the border from Macedonia on Tuesday. Serbia demanded his extradition on war crimes charges stemming from his role as the military commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) in 1999. Ceku is a shadowy figure with a violent‚Äîsome say genocidal‚Äîrecord in his leadership capacity in both the Croatian military in the 1990s and as commander of the KLA. At the same time, this is a man who was embraced and promoted by powerful Democrats after and during his brutal activities. In the 1990s, Ceku had private meetings with now-Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Carl Levin, and Obama’s current coordinator of Afghanistan/Pakistan policy Richard Holbrooke. Ceku drank whiskey with Madeleine Albright’s deputy Jamie Rubin, with whom he developed a close relationship, and was praised by Gen. Wesley Clark as “one of the more reasonable people in that region.”

This is not the first time Ceku has been arrested. In 2003, he was detained in an airport in Slovenia and in 2004 at the airport in Budapest. In May 2009, he was deported Gen. Wesley Clark, Agim Ceku and others, 1999.from Colombia. Ceku’s political allies predict he will, once again, be released. Complicating the case, the Interpol warrant was issued by Serbia, a country with little credibility on the issue of accountability for war crimes, instead of an international criminal court. Regardless of the possible trial venue, powerful US officials, particularly Democrats from the Clinton administration, have a vested interest in making sure Ceku is not put on trial.

Ceku Used US Training for ‘Ethnic Cleansing’ Campaign

Ten years ago, as Ceku‚Äîbacked by the US‚Äî rose to power in Kosovo, I investigated Ceku’s “brutal past:”

A past the US knows well because it was influential in making Ceku one of the top “ethnic cleansers” in the Balkans, alongside Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. Ceku refined his brutality as a general in the US-backed Croatian Army during the Balkan war and was trained by Military Professional Resources Inc., a private paramilitary firm founded in 1987 and based in Alexandria, Virginia with former high-ranking US generals and NATO officials on its board. These officers include the former Commanders in Chief of the US Army in Europe and US Central Command, the Supreme Allied Commander-Atlantic and the former US Representative to the NATO Military Committee. In 1994, armed with a contract authorized by the Clinton Administration, MPRI officially began to train Croatian forces.

Just months after MPRI arrived on the scene, Croatian forces carried out the notorious Operation Storm. In a brutal four-day blitzkrieg in 1995, these forces expelled some 200,000 Serbs from the Krajina region of Croatia after their villages were mercilessly shelled. Jane’s Defense Weekly reported that Ceku was “one of the key planners” of the operation that the New York Times called “the largest single ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the war.”

The [International] criminal tribunal has been investigating Operation Storm for years…. [Ceku was also] suspected by the tribunal of war crimes committed during raids he led in the south of Croatia in September 1993, when he was commanding the feared 9th Brigade.

War crimes investigators at the Hague concluded, “In a widespread and systematic manner, Croatian troops committed murder and other inhumane acts upon and against Croatian Serbs.” Investigators also documented deliberate and indiscriminate attacks on civilians and civilian buildings, along with summary executions, as Croatian forces “committed numerous violations of international humanitarian law.”

According to a 1999 report in Jane’s Defense Weekly:

A retired US Army officer ≠ now with the Virginia-based Military Professional Resources Incorporated and who has served as consultant to the HV [Croatian military] since 1995 ≠ describes Brig Ceku as a highly competent and disciplined officer. “We were impressed by his overview of the battleground and the ability to always predict his enemy’s next move.”

Gen. Wesley Clark, the former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, worked with Ceku when Clark led the bombing of Kosovo. “[Ceku] could have been in anybody’s army and done well,” said Clark in 2007.

The Clinton Administration’s Man in Kosovo

Ceku ultimately left the Croatian military to join the secessionist movement in the southern Serbian province of Kosovo. In 1999, he was named the military commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army where he worked closely with several US officials, perhaps chief among them Jamie Rubin, who was then the top aide to Madeleine Albright, President Clinton’s Secretary of State. Earlier in his career, Rubin was a staffer for Senator Joe Biden and is married to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour (who covered the war while her husband helped wage it). “Their well-meaning advice offers us answers to many questions,” Ceku said of Rubin and Albright.

Despite US intelligence that indicated that the KLA was a terrorist organization with ties to narco-trafficking and networks connected to Osama bin Laden, the Clinton Administration embraced the organization as its proxy armed force on the ground in Kosovo in Holbrooke meeting with KLA fighters1998-99. Richard Holbrooke, who is currently the Obama administration’s special envoy on Afghanistan-Pakistan policy, was the US official who in 1995 called for the US to drop “bombs for peace” in Bosnia. He would then go on to serve as a key liaison between the Clinton White House and the KLA before becoming Clinton’s UN ambassador.

The Clinton administration armed and supported the KLA despite the fact that in February 1998, Clinton’s special envoy on Kosovo, Robert Gelbard, labeled the KLA a “terrorist” group. “We condemn very strongly terrorist actions in Kosovo,” Gelbard said in February 1998 on a visit to Serbia. “The [KLA] is, without any questions, a terrorist group.” Despite this statement by its own on-the-ground envoy, Clinton’s State Department did not classify the group as such and the US began accelerating its support for the KLA on the ground. In the lead-up to the war, Holbrooke met several times with the KLA, in his own words, “in secret, with no publicity.”

In the summer of 1999, as US-led NATO forces escorted KLA-backed politicians to power in Pristina, Kosovo, the Clinton Administration worked closely with Ceku to make him the head of what would amount to a Kosovo Army‚Äîdespite the fact that Kosovo was a province of Serbia, not a sovereign nation. Then-Senator Joe Biden worked closely with Ceku and other KLA commanders to transform the KLA into a “Kosovo Protection Corp (KPC)” which Ceku described as the future “army of Kosovo.” These actions set the Yugoslav province on the path to secession.

Some European countries opposed the creation of this force, drawn from KLA members, but ultimately relented under intense US pressure, particularly from Albright. Rubin was with Ceku and other KLA figures at Ceku’s wartime home in the mountains of Kosovo when Albright called to say the US had convinced its allies to support the US position on the KLA. Rubin, Ceku and the others toasted their victory over Bushmill’s Irish whisky. Rubin then flew by helicopter to Pristina with Ceku so Ceku could begin his new role in Kosovo that would ultimately lead to the position of “Prime Minister” in 2006.

At the time, the Spokeswoman for the UN Mission in Kosovo, Susan Manuel, told me the UN was “aware” of Gen. Ceku’s history and the accusations against him but did not oppose him as the head of the newly-created KPC “because he was the leader of the KLA when we arrived, and he wanted to contribute to the transformation of the KLA to a constructive force for the future of Kosovo.” This configuration was largely the work of Washington.

As I wrote in 1999:

At nearly every turn in the UN/NATO negotiations with the KLA over their role in the “new” Kosovo, American officials swooped in to appease Gen. Ceku and his KLA cronies by making changes to key principles to agreements. In one instance when NATO negotiators were at a standstill with the KLA over its role in the future administration of Kosovo, then-State Department spokesperson James Rubin came to the group’s rescue, adding a clause that said, “special consideration should be given to current KLA members to participate in the administration and police force of Kosovo in exchange for the help the KLA provided to NATO during its air campaign.” Rubin said he had “made the deal in his capacity of adviser to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.”

Such actions prompted Hansjoerg Strohmeyer, legal advisor to UNMIK, to say, “The US stands to destroy the neutrality of our mission if it insists upon these clauses.”

Ceku, with his support from the Clinton Administration, was one of the key figures involved with the ethnic cleansing of minority Serbs from Kosovo. In fact, that is what the Interpol warrant which Ceku was just arrested on is based upon:

Mr. Ceku is wanted for alleged war crimes committed during the 1998-1999 war in Kosovo, when he was a commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army, a rebel group which fought a guerilla war against Serbian forces. In the indictment filed against him in a Serbian court, he is accused of command responsibility for the deaths of 669 Serbs and 18 other non-Albanians — allegations he has strenuously denied and dismissed as politically motivated.

In describing these crimes at the time, I wrote:

Washington’s maneuvering to reward the KLA in the “new” Kosovo, has forsaken human rights and ethnic tolerance to a desire to maintain a close relationship with the forces it hopes to do business with for years to come. By legitimizing Agim Ceku and thousands of other KLA members by putting them in positions of authority, Washington is giving ethnic cleansing a green light. Not criminally charging KPC members sends a clear message to those in- and outside the KPC that crimes may continue with impunity. It’s not surprising that some of the worst brutality against Serbs has occurred in the US sector of Kosovo.

A year after Ceku became head of the “Kosovo Protection Corp.,” the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported that more than 200,000 ethnic minorities‚Äîmostly Serbs‚Äî had fled Kosovo in the face of escalating violence against them.

The KLA’s Ties to Narco-Trafficking and ‘Terrorism’

While Clinton officials and other key Democrats were bolstering Ceku and the KLA, US intelligence reports painted a picture of that organization as a narco-trafficking organization with ties to terrorists, as The Washington Times reported in May 1999:

Some members of the Kosovo Liberation Army, which has financed its war effort through the sale of heroin, were trained in terrorist camps run by international fugitive Osama bin Laden - who is wanted in the 1998 bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa that killed 224 persons, including 12 Americans.

The KLA members, embraced by the Clinton administration… were trained in secret camps in Afghanistan, Bosnia-Herzegovina and elsewhere, according to newly obtained intelligence reports.

The reports also show that the KLA has enlisted Islamic terrorists - members of the Mujahideen - as soldiers in its ongoing conflict against Serbia, and that many already have been smuggled into Kosovo to join the fight.

Before his death, former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic said at his war crimes trial at the Hague:

“In 1998 when [Clinton envoy Richard] Holbrooke visited us in Belgrade, we told him the information we had at our disposal, that in Northern Albania the KLA is being aided by Osama bin Laden, that he was arming, training, and preparing the members of this terrorist organisation in Albania. However, they decided to cooperate with the KLA and indirectly, therefore, with bin Laden, although before that he had bombed the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania [and] had already declared war.”

US support for the KLA would have been explored in detail at Milosevic’s war crimes trial‚Äîas would Washington’s dealings with Milosevic throughout the 1990s as well. When Milosevic died, he was fighting to subpoena Bill Clinton and other US officials to testify.

When Kosovo finally declared its independence in February 2008, both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton issued statements supporting the breakaway province. Clinton’s was much further reaching in its overt support for Kosovo, which was not surprising given that her top foreign policy advisors‚ÄîAlbright, Holbrooke, Rubin‚Äîwere among the chief architects of the dismantling of Yugoslavia throughout the 1990s.

Agim Ceku is a man the Clinton administration trained, armed and funded throughout the 1990s. This crucial US support amounted to aiding and abetting war crimes. While it would send a strong message to the world for Obama and Clinton to call for a war crimes trial for Ceku, that seems unlikely given Obama’s passionate opposition to “looking backwards” even in the face of overwhelming evidence that grave crimes have been committed. Moreover, at the end of the day, many of Ceku’s crimes were made possible by powerful Democrats, including some with deep ties to the current White House.

NOTE: I debated this issue with Samantha Power on Democracy Now! in February 2008. At the time she was one of Barack Obama’s foreign policy advisors. The transcript and video are here.

Posted: 2009-06-25 09:09:00

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