Kosovo Liberation Army

Kosovo Liberation Army
Ushtria Çlirimtare e Kosovës
Participant in Kosovo War
Active 1991[1] – 1999[2] (est. 1992–93[3] but relatively passive until 1996)
Leaders Hashim Thaçi
Bilall Syla
Zahir Pajaziti
Adem Jashari
Agim Çeku
Fatmir Limaj
Ramush Haradinaj
Bekim Berisha
Agim Ramadani  
Area of operations Kosovo, FR Yugoslavia
Strength 12,000–20,000[5] or 25,000–45,000[6]
Became Kosovo Protection Corps
Allies Albania, NATO
Opponents Yugoslavia
Battles and wars

Kosovo War:

The Kosovo Liberation Army (abbreviated KLA; Albanian: Ushtria Çlirimtare e KosovësUÇK) was an ethnic-Albanian paramilitary and organisation that sought the separation of Kosovo from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) and Serbia during the 1990s and the eventual creation of a Greater Albania.[lower-alpha 1] Its campaign against Yugoslav security forces, police, government officers, and ethnic Serb villages precipitated a major crackdown by the Yugoslav military and Serb paramilitaries within Kosovo known as the Kosovo War of 1998–99. The Kosovo war ultimately featured a military campaign by NATO against FRY armed forces during March–June 1999.

In 1999, with the fighting over and an international force in place within Kosovo, the KLA was officially disbanded, and their members entered the Kosovo Protection Corps, a civilian emergency protection-body that replaced the KLA and Kosovo Police Force, as foreseen in United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244. Former Kosovo Liberation Army leaders also entered politics, some of them winning high-ranking offices.

There have been many reports of abuses and war crimes committed by the KLA during and after the conflict, such as massacres of civilians, prison camps, and destruction medieval churches and monuments.[12] In April 2014, the Assembly of Kosovo considered and approved the establishment of a special court to try cases involving crimes and other serious abuses committed in 1999-2000 by members of the KLA.[13]


A key precursor to the Kosovo Liberation Army was the People's Movement of Kosovo (LPK). This group, who argued Kosovo's freedom could be won only through armed struggle, traces back to 1982, and played a crucial role in the creation of the KLA in 1993.[14][15] Fund-raising began in the 1980s in Switzerland by Albanian exiles of the violence of 1981 and subsequent émigrés.[16] Slobodan Milošević revoked Kosovan autonomy in 1989, returning the region to its 1945 status, ejecting ethnic Albanians from the Kosovan bureaucracy, and violently putting down protests.[17][18] In response, Kosovar Albanians established the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK). Headed by Ibrahim Rugova, its goal was independence from Serbia, but via peaceful means. To this end, the LDK set up and developed a "parallel state" with a particular focus on education and healthcare.[18]

The KLA made their name known publicly for the first time in 1995,[19] and a first public appearance followed in 1997, at which time its membership was still only around 200.[20] Critical of the progress made by Rugova, the KLA received boosts from the 1995 Dayton Accords—these granted Kosovo nothing, and so generated a more widespread rejection of the LDK's peaceful methods—and from looted weaponry that spilled into Kosovo after the Albanian rebellion of 1997.[21] During 1997–98, the Kosovo Liberation Army moved ahead of Rugova's LDK, a fact starkly illustrated by the KLA's Hashim Thaçi leading the Kosovar Albanians at the Rambouillet negotiations of spring 1999, with Rugova in tow as his deputy.[22]

In February 1996, the KLA undertook a series of attacks against police stations and Yugoslav government officers, saying that they had killed Albanian civilians as part of an ethnic cleansing campaign.[23] Later that year, the British weekly The European carried an article by a French expert stating that "German civil and military intelligence services have been involved in training and equipping the rebels with the aim of cementing German influence in the Balkan area. (...) The birth of the KLA in 1996 coincided with the appointment of Hansjoerg Geiger as the new head of the BND (German secret Service). (...) The BND men were in charge of selecting recruits for the KLA command structure from the 500,000 Kosovars in Albania."[24] Former senior adviser to the German parliament Matthias Küntzel tried to prove later on that German secret diplomacy had been instrumental in helping the KLA since its creation.[25]

Serbian authorities denounced the KLA as a terrorist organisation and increased the number of security forces in the region. This had the counter-productive effect of boosting the credibility of the embryonic KLA among the Kosovo Albanian population. Not long before NATO's military action commenced, the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants reported that "Kosovo Liberation Army ... attacks aimed at trying to 'cleanse' Kosovo of its ethnic Serb population."[26]

The Yugoslav Red Cross had estimated a total of 30,000 refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) from Kosovo, most of whom were Serb. The UNHCR estimated the figure at 55,000 refugees who had fled to Montenegro and Central Serbia, most of whom were Kosovo Serbs: "Over 90 mixed villages in Kosovo have now been emptied of Serb inhabitants and other Serbs continue leaving, either to be displaced in other parts of Kosovo or fleeing into central Serbia."

The NATO North Atlantic Council had stressed that KLA was "the main initiator of the violence" and that it had "launched what appears to be a deliberate campaign of provocation".[26]

Kosovo War

Main article: Kosovo War

Largely funded by the Albanian diaspora in Europe and the United States,[27] proceeds from narcotics trafficking donated by Albanian drug lords nevertheless formed a significant portion of the KLA's income. When the US State Department listed the KLA as a terrorist organization in 1998, it noted its links to the heroin trade,[28] and a briefing paper for the US Congress stated: "We would be remiss to dismiss allegations that between 30 and 50 percent of the KLA's money comes from drugs."[29] By 1999, Western intelligence agencies estimated that over $250m of narcotics money had found its way into KLA coffers.[30] After the NATO bombing of 1999, KLA-linked heroin traffickers again began using Kosovo as a major supply route; in 2000, an estimated 80% of Europe's heroin supply was controlled by Kosovar Albanians.[31]

Between 5 and 7 March 1998, the Yugoslav Army launched an operation on Prekaz. The operation followed an earlier firefight (28 February) in which four policemen were killed and several more were wounded; Adem Jashari, a KLA leader, escaped. In Prekaz, 28 militans were killed, along with 30 civilians, most belonging to Jashari's family. Amnesty International claimed that it was an extermination operation.

On 23 April 1998, the Yugoslav Army (VJ) ambushed the KLA near the Albanian-Yugoslav border. The KLA had tried to smuggle arms and supplies into Kosovo. The Yugoslav Army, although greatly outnumbered, had no casualties, while 19 militants were killed.

According to Roland Keith, a field office director of the OSCE's Kosovo Verification Mission:[32]

Upon my arrival the war increasingly evolved into a mid intensity conflict as ambushes, the encroachment of critical lines of communication and the [KLA] kidnapping of security forces resulted in a significant increase in government casualties which in turn led to major Yugoslavian reprisal security operations... By the beginning of March these terror and counter-terror operations led to the inhabitants of numerous villages fleeing, or being dispersed to either other villages, cities or the hills to seek refuge... The situation was clearly that KLA provocations, as personally witnessed in ambushes of security patrols which inflicted fatal and other casualties, were clear violations of the previous October's agreement [and United Nations Security Council Resolution 1199].


Foreign volunteers

Former KLA spokesman Jakup Krasniqi said that volunteers came from "Sweden, Belgium, the UK, Germany and the US."[33] Islamist volunteers from Western Europe of ethnic Albanian, Turkish, and North African origin, were organized by Islamist leaders in Western Europe allied to Bin Laden and Zawahiri.[6] Some 175 Yemeni mujahideen arrived in early May 1998.[6] The KLA included many foreign volunteers from West Europe, mostly from Germany and Switzerland, and also ethnic Albanians from the US.[34] According to the Serbian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, by September 1998, there was 1,000 foreign mercenaries from Albania, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina (Muslims) and Croatia.[35]

Aftermath (post-1999)

UÇK monument in Deçan

After the war, the KLA was transformed into the Kosovo Protection Corps, which worked alongside NATO forces patrolling the province.[36] In 2000 there were unrest in Kosovska Mitrovica, with a Yugoslav police officer and physician were killed, and three officers and a physician wounded in February. In March, the FRY complained about the escalation of violence in the region, evidence that according to them, supported that the KLA was still active. Between April and September the FRY issued several documents to the UN Security Council about violence against Serbs and other non-Albanians.[37]

Separatism in south Serbia and Macedonia

Ali Ahmeti organised the NLA that fought in the Insurgency in the Republic of Macedonia, of former KLA fighters from Kosovo and Macedonia, Albanian insurgents from Preševo, Medveđa and Bujanovac in Serbia, young Albanian radicals and nationalists from Macedonia, and foreign mercenaries.[38] The acronym was the same as KLA's in Albanian.[38]

KLA veterans in politics

The KLA legacy remains powerful within Kosovo. Its former members still play a major role in Kosovar politics.


Hajredin Bala, an ex-KLA prison guard, was sentenced on 30 November 2005 to 13 years’ imprisonment for the mistreatment of three prisoners at the Llapushnik prison camp, his personal role in the "maintenance and enforcement of the inhumane conditions" of the camp, aiding the torture of one prisoner, and of participating in the murder of nine prisoners from the camp who were marched to the Berisha Mountains on 25 or 26 July 1998 and killed. Bala appealed the sentence and the appeal is still pending.[44]

Foreign support

Members of the Kosovo Liberation Army turn over their weapons to U.S. Marines

James Bissett, Canadian Ambassador to Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Albania, wrote in 2001 that media reports indicate that "as early as 1998, the Central Intelligence Agency assisted by the British Special Air Service were arming and training Kosovo Liberation Army members in Albania to foment armed rebellion in Kosovo. (...) The hope was that with Kosovo in flames NATO could intervene ..."[45] According to Tim Judah, KLA representatives had already met with American, British, and Swiss intelligence agencies in 1996, and possibly "several years earlier"[46] and according to The Sunday Times, "American intelligence agents have admitted they helped to train the Kosovo Liberation Army before NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia".[47][48] Intelligence agents denied, however, that they were involved in arming the KLA.

American Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, while opposed to American ground troops in Kosovo, advocated for America providing support to the Kosovo Liberation to help them gain their freedom.[49] He was honored by the Albanian American Civic League at a New Jersey located fundraising event on 23 July 2001. President of the League, Joseph J. DioGuardi, praised Rohrabacher for his support to the Kosovo Liberation Army, saying "He was the first member of Congress to insist that the United States arm the Kosovo Liberation Army, and one of the few members who to this day publicly supports the independence of Kosovo."[50] Rohrabacher gave a speech in support of American equipping the KLA with weaponry, comparing it to French support of America in the Revolutionary War, saying "Based on our own experience, the Kosovo Liberation Army should have been armed." "If the U.S. had armed the KLA in 1998, we would not be where we are today. The 'freedom fighters' would have secured their freedom and Kosovo would be independent."[51][52]

Reported abuses

Weapons confiscated from the KLA, July 1999

There have been reports of war crimes committed by the KLA both during and after the conflict. These have been directed against Serbs, other ethnic minorities (primarily the Roma) and against ethnic Albanians accused of collaborating with Serb authorities.[53] According to a 2001 report by Human Rights Watch (HRW):

The KLA was responsible for serious abuses... including abductions and murders of Serbs and ethnic Albanians considered collaborators with the state. Elements of the KLA are also responsible for post-conflict attacks on Serbs, Roma, and other non-Albanians, as well as ethnic Albanian political rivals... widespread and systematic burning and looting of homes belonging to Serbs, Roma, and other minorities and the destruction of Orthodox churches and monasteries... combined with harassment and intimidation designed to force people from their homes and communities... elements of the KLA are clearly responsible for many of these crimes.[12]

The KLA engaged in tit-for-tat attacks against Serbian nationalists in Kosovo, reprisals against ethnic Albanians who "collaborated" with the Serbian government, and bombed police stations and cafes known to be frequented by Serb officials, killing innocent civilians in the process. Most of its activities were funded by drug running, though its ties to community groups and Albanian exiles gave it local popularity.[36]

The infamous Panda Bar incident, however, which was an attack on Serb teenagers at a cafe, that led to an immediate crackdown on the Albanian-populated southern quarters of Pejë (Kapeshnicë and Zatra), during which Serbian police killed two Kosovo Albanians[54] has been alleged to have been organized by the Serbian government. On 17 January 2014, the Serbian newspaper Kurir reported that a source close to the Serbian government stated that there exists concrete evidence that the crime was ordered by Radomir Markovic (head of State Security Service) and executed by the infamous Milorad Ulemek (Legija), so as to make Kosovo Liberation Army appear as a terrorist organisation.[55] Similar claims, although not accusing the government, were made by Aleksandar Vucic, who stated that there is no evidence that the murder was committed by Albanians, as previously believed.[56]

“UÇK” (KLA) graffiti in damaged Devič, Serbian Orthodox monastery

The exact number of victims of the KLA is not known. According to a Serbian government report, the KLA had killed and kidnapped 3,276 people of various ethnic descriptions including some Albanians. From 1 January 1998 to 10 June 1999 the KLA killed 988 people and kidnapped 287; in the period from 10 June 1999 to 11 November 2001, when NATO took control in Kosovo, 847 were reported to have been killed and 1,154 kidnapped. This comprised both civilians and security force personnel: of those killed in the first period, 335 were civilians, 351 soldiers, 230 police and 72 were unidentified; by nationality, 87 of the killed civilians were Serbs, 230 Albanians, and 18 of other nationalities. Following the withdrawal of Serbian and Yugoslav security forces from Kosovo in June 1999, all casualties were civilians, the vast majority being Serbs.[57] According to Human Rights Watch, as "many as one thousand Serbs and Roma have been murdered or have gone missing since 12 June 1999."[12]

Kosovo Liberation Army members were sentenced for murdering 32 non-Albanian civilians.[58] In the same case, another 35 civilians are missing while 153 were tortured and released.

Allegation of usage of child soldiers

Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted by the UN General Assembly on 20 November 1989, entered into force on 2 September 1990 and valid throughout the conflict, article 38 uses the age of 15 as the minimum for recruitment or participation in armed conflict. Article 38 requires state parties to prevent anyone under the age of 15 from taking direct part in hostilities and to refrain from recruiting anyone under the age of 15 years.[59]

The participation of persons under age of 18 in the KLA was confirmed in October 2000 when details of the registration of 16,024 KLA soldiers by the International Organisation for Migration in Kosovo became known. Ten per cent of this number were under age of 18. The majority of them were 16 and 17 years old. Around 2% were below the age of 16. These were mainly girls recruited to cook for the soldiers rather than to actually fight.[60]

Allegations of organ theft

Main article: Organ theft in Kosovo

Carla Del Ponte, a long-time ICTY chief prosecutor, claimed in her book The Hunt: Me and the War Criminals that there were instances of organ trafficking in 1999 after the end of the Kosovo War. These allegations were dismissed by Kosovar and Albanian authorities.[61] The allegations have been rejected by Kosovar authorities as fabrications while the ICTY has said "no reliable evidence had been obtained to substantiate the allegations".[62]

In early 2011 the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs viewed a report by Dick Marty on the alleged criminal activities and alleged organ harvesting controversy; however, the Members of Parliament criticised the report, citing lack of evidence, and Marty responded that a witness protection program was needed in Kosovo before he could provide more details on witnesses because their lives were in danger.[63] Investigations are still being done.


Victims of massacres
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Destroyed medieval churches and monuments

Destroyed Serbian Orthodox Holy Trinity Church in Petrić village
Ruined medieval Serbian Orthodox monastery

In total, 155 Serbian Orthodox churches and monasteries were destroyed between 11 June 1999 and 19 March 2004, after the end of the Kosovo War and including the 2004 unrest in Kosovo.[80] KLA fighters are accused of vandalizing Devič monastery and terrorizing the staf. The KFOR troops said KLA rebels vandalized centuries-old murals and paintings in the chapel and stole two cars and all the monastery's food.[81] Many other churches were the target of attacks by Albanian militants, such as Church of the Virgin Hodegetria, Mušutište, Monastery of St. Mark of Koriša and Church of St. Elijah, Podujevo.[82][83]

Prison camps

Status as a terrorist group

The Yugoslav authorities, under Slobodan Milošević, regarded the KLA as terrorist group,[89] though many European governments did not. In February 1998, U.S. President Bill Clinton's special envoy to the Balkans, Robert Gelbard, condemned both the actions of the Serb government and of the KLA, and described the KLA as "without any questions, a terrorist group".[90][91][92] UN resolution 1160 took a similar stance.[93][94]

Monument to Serbs killed by “terrorist KLA” in Mitrovica

But the 1997 US State Department's terrorist list hadn't included the KLA.[95] In March 1998, just one month later Gerbald had to modify his statements to say that KLA had not been classified legally by the U.S. government as a terrorist group,[94] and the US government approached the KLA leaders to make them interlocutors with the Serbs.[96][97] A Wall Street Journal article claimed later that the US government had in February 1998 removed the KLA from the list of terrorist organisations,[96][98][99] a removal that has never been confirmed.[94] France didn't delist the KLA until late 1998, after strong US and UK lobbying.[100] KLA is still present in the MIPT Terrorism Knowledge Base list of terrorist groups,[89] and is listed as an inactive terrorist organisation by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism.[101]

During the war, the KLA troops collaborated with the NATO troops, and they were qualified by NATO as "freedom fighters". In late 1999 the KLA was disbanded and its members entered the Kosovo Protection Corps.[96]

Special Court of Kosovo

In April 2014, the Assembly of Kosovo considered and approved the establishment of a special court of Kosovo to try alleged war crimes and other serious abuses committed during and after the 1998–99 Kosovo war.[102] The court will adjudicate cases against individuals based on a 2010 Council of Europe report by the Swiss senator Dick Marty.[103] The proceedings will be EU-funded and held in The Hague, though it would still be a Kosovo national court. Defendants will likely include members of the Kosovo Liberation Army who are alleged to have committed crimes against ethnic minorities and political opponents, meaning the court is likely to meet with some unpopularity at home, where the KLA are still widely considered heroes.[104]

See also


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  98. War on terrorism skipped the KLA National Post, 13 November 2001, Centre for Research on Globalisation (CRG)
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