Kosovo Liberation Army

Hashim Thaçi Kosovo War Kosovo Protection Corps

Kosovo Liberation Army
Ushtria Çlirimtare e Kosovës
Participant in Kosovo War
Active1993–20 September 1999 (est. 1992–93[1] but relatively passive until 1996)
IdeologyAlbanian nationalism[2][3][4]
Greater Albania[a]
LeadersAdem Jashari  
Zahir Pajaziti  
Hashim Thaçi
Agim Çeku
Fatmir Limaj
Ramush Haradinaj
Bekim Berisha  
Agim Ramadani  
Area of operationsFR Yugoslavia
Size12,000–20,000,[10] 17,000–20,000,[11] 24,000 (April–May 1999),[12] or 25,000–45,000[13]
Allies Albania
Opponent(s) FR Yugoslavia
Battles and war(s)Kosovo War

The Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA; Albanian: Ushtria Çlirimtare e Kosovës – UÇK, [uʃˈtɾija t͡ʃliɾimˈtaɾɛ ɛ ˈkɔsɔvəs]) was an ethnic-Albanian separatist militia that sought the separation of Kosovo from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) and Serbia during the 1990s and the eventual creation of Greater Albania due to the presence of a vast ethnic majority of Albanians in the region,[b] stressing Albanian culture, ethnicity and nation.[2][3][4]

Military precursors to the KLA began in the late 1980s with armed resistance to Yugoslav police trying to take Albanian activists in custody.[14] By early 1990s there were attacks on police forces and secret-service officials who abused Albanian civilians.[14] By mid-1998 the KLA was involved in frontal battle though it was outnumbered and outgunned.[14] Conflict escalated from 1997 onward due to the Yugoslavian army retaliating with a crackdown in the region which resulted in violence and population displacements.[15] [16] The bloodshed, ethnic cleansing of thousands of Albanians driving them into neighbouring countries and the potential of it to destabilize the region provoked intervention by international organizations, such as the United Nations, NATO and INGOs.[17][18] NATO supported the KLA and intervened on its behalf in March 1999.

In September 1999, with the fighting over and an international force in place within Kosovo, the KLA was officially disbanded and thousands of its 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. The ending of the Kosovo war resulted in the emergence of offshoot guerilla groups and political organisations from the KLA continuing violent struggles in southern Serbia (1999–2001) and northwestern Macedonia (2001), which resulted in peace talks and greater Albanian rights.[19] Former KLA leaders also entered politics, some of them reaching high-ranking offices.

The KLA received large funds from Albanian diaspora organizations. There have been allegations that it used narcoterrorism to finance its operations.[20][21] Abuses and war crimes were committed by the KLA during and after the conflict, such as massacres of civilians, prison camps and destruction of cultural heritage sites.[22] 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 allegedly committed in 1999–2000 by members of the KLA.[23] The KLA is regarded as one of the most successful insurgencies of the post-Cold War period and as a model insurgency, with its quick success coming mostly from an unusual configuration of geopolitical and popular phenomena.[24]

In June 2020 the Kosovo Specialist Chambers and Specialist Prosecutor's Office filed indictments for crimes against humanity and war crimes against a number of former KLA members, including the president of Kosovo Hashim Thaçi.[25]


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.[26][27] Fund-raising began in the 1980s in Switzerland by Albanian exiles of the violence of 1981 and subsequent émigrés.[28] 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.[29][30] 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.[30]

The KLA made their name known publicly for the first time in 1995,[31] and a first public appearance followed in 1997, at which time its membership was still only around 200.[26] 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.[32] 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 as his deputy.[33]

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.[34] 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."[35] Matthias Küntzel tried to prove later on that German secret diplomacy had been instrumental in helping the KLA since its creation.[36]

Serbian authorities denounced the KLA as a terrorist organisation and increased the number of security forces in the region. This had the 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."[37] 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".[37]

One of the goals mentioned by the KLA commanders was the formation of Greater Albania, irredentist concept of lands that are considered to form the national homeland by many Albanians, encompassing Kosovo, Albania, and the ethnic Albanian minority of neighbouring Macedonia and Montenegro.[5][6][8]


The KLA received large funds from the Albanian diaspora in Europe and the United States.[38] It is estimated that those funds amounted from $75 million to $100 million.[21] According to some sources the KLA received substantial funds from its involvement in the drug trade.[39][40] However insufficient evidence exists that the KLA itself was involved in such activities.[41] When the U.S. State Department listed the KLA as a terrorist organization in 1998, it noted its links to the heroin trade,[42] and a briefing paper for the U.S. Congress stated: "We would be remiss to dismiss allegations that between 30 and 50 percent of the KLA's money comes from drugs."[43] By 1999, Western intelligence agencies estimated that over $250m of narcotics money had found its way into KLA coffers.[44] After the NATO bombing, KLA-linked heroin traffickers began using Kosovo again as a major supply route; in 2000, an estimated 80% of Europe's heroin supply was controlled by Kosovar Albanians.[45]

Kosovo War

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 militants were killed, along with 30 civilians, most belonging to Jashari's family. Amnesty International claimed that it was a military operation focused primarily on the elimination of Jashari and his family.[46]

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:[47]

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].

Some sources say that the KLA never won a battle, while others say it won relatively few battles.[48][49]


In Kosovo

Hamez Jashari

The original core of KLA in the early 1990s was a closely knitted group of commanders consisting of commissioned and non commissioned officers belonging to reserve, regular and territorial defense units of the Yugoslav army (JNA).[50] In 1996, the KLA consisted of only a few hundred fighters.[50] Within the context of the armed struggle, in 1996-1997 a report by the CIA noted that the KLA could mobilize tens of thousands of supporters in Kosovo within a two to three year time frame.[50] By the end of 1998, the KLA had 17,000 men.[50] Religion did not play a role within the KLA and some of its most committed fund raisers and fighters came from the Catholic community.[51]

Foreign volunteers

Albanian recruits from neighbouring Macedonia joined the KLA and their numbers ranged from several dozen into the thousands.[52] Following the war some Albanians from Macedonia have felt that their military participation and assistance to fellow Kosovan Albanians during the conflict has not been properly recognised in Kosovo.[52]

Former KLA spokesman Jakup Krasniqi said that volunteers came from "Sweden, Belgium, the UK, Germany and the U.S.".[53] The KLA included many foreign volunteers from West Europe, mostly from Germany and Switzerland, and also ethnic Albanians from the U.S.[54][unreliable source?]

According to the Serbian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, by September 1998 there were 1,000 foreign mercenaries from Albania, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina (Muslims) and Croatia.[55] The Abu Bekir Sidik [sr] mujahideen unit of 115 members operated in Drenica in May–June 1998, and dozen of its members were Saudis and Egyptians, reportedly funded by Islamist organizations. The group was later disbanded, and no permanent Jihadist presence was established.[56]

During the Kosovo conflict Milošević and his supporters portrayed the KLA as a terrorist organisation of militant Islam.[57] The CIA advised the KLA to avoid involvement with Muslim extremists.[51] The KLA rejected offers of assistance from Muslim fundamentalists.[58] There was an understanding within the ranks of the KLA that foreign assistance from Muslim fundamentalists would limit support toward the cause of Kosovo Albanians in the West.[57]

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.[59] In 2000 there was unrest in Kosovska Mitrovica, with a Yugoslav police officer and physician killed, and three officers and a physician wounded, in February. In March, the FRY complained about the escalation of violence in the region, claiming this showed 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.[60]

Some people from non-Albanian communities such as the Serbs and Romani fled Kosovo, some fearing revenge attacks by armed people and returning refugees and others were pressured by the KLA and armed gangs to leave.[61] 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."[62]

In post war Kosovo, KLA fighters have been venerated by Kosovar Albanian society with the publishing of literature such as biographies, the erection of monuments and commemorative events.[63] The exploits of Adem Jashari have been celebrated and turned into legend by former KLA members and by Kosovar Albanian society. Several songs, literature works, monuments, memorials have been dedicated to him, and some streets and buildings bear his name across Kosovo.[64][65]

Insurgency 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.[66] The acronym was the same as KLA's in Albanian.[66]

KLA veterans in politics

A number of KLA figures now 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.[72][needs update]

Foreign support

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

The United States (and NATO) directly supported the KLA.[73] The CIA funded, trained and supplied the KLA (as they had earlier the Bosnian Army).[74] As disclosed to The Sunday Times by CIA sources, "American intelligence agents have admitted they helped to train the Kosovo Liberation Army before NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia".[75][76][77] In 1999, a retired Colonel told that KLA forces had been trained in Albania by former U.S. military working for MPRI.[75]

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 ...".[78] According to Tim Judah, KLA representatives had already met with American, British, and Swiss intelligence agencies in 1996, and possibly "several years earlier".[79]

American Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, while opposed to American ground troops in Kosovo, advocated for America providing support to the KLA to help them gain their freedom.[80] 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 KLA, 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." Rohrabacher gave a speech in support of American equipping the KLA with weaponry, comparing it to French support of America in the Revolutionary War.[81]

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.[82] 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.[22]

The KLA engaged in tit-for-tat attacks against Serbs 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.[59]

The Panda Bar incident, a massacre of Serb teenagers in a cafe, that led to an immediate crackdown on the Albanian-populated southern quarters of Peć during which Serbian police killed two Albanians[83] has been alleged by Serbian newspaper Kurir to have been organized by the Serbian government,[84] while Aleksandar Vučić has stated that there is no evidence that the murder was committed by Albanians, as previously believed.[85]

The “Missing” monument in Gračanica dedicated for the Serb victims missing from the Kosovo War

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.[86] According to Human Rights Watch, as "many as one thousand Serbs and Roma have been murdered or have gone missing since 12 June 1999."[22]

A Serbian court sentenced 9 former KLA members for murdering 32 non-Albanian civilians.[87] In the same case, another 35 civilians are missing while 153 were tortured and released.

Alleged use of child soldiers

The 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 was valid throughout the conflict. Article 38 of this Convention state 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.[88]

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.[89]

Organ theft

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.[90] 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".[91]

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.[92] Investigations are continuing.


Victims of massacres

In 2003, the daily Serbian newspaper Večernje novosti published wartime photographs of three KLA soldiers with the heads of decapitated Serbs. The newspaper identified two of the three KLA members as Sadik Chuflaj and his son Valon Chuflaj, who according to the newspaper then worked for the Kosovo Protection Corps.[110] Bojan Cvetkovic, a volunteer soldier who had been only on duty for weeks was identified as one of the victims while the Serbian Radical Party later confirmed that soldier Aleksandar Njegovic who was a SRP member, was the second victim out of three other soldiers that went missing at the same time.[111]

Destroyed medieval churches and monuments

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

Cultural historian András Riedlmayer stated that no Serbian Orthodox churches or monasteries were damaged or destroyed by the KLA during the war.[112] Riedlmayer and Andrew Herscher conducted a survey of Kosovo cultural heritage for the ICTY and UNMIK following the war and their results found that most of the damage to the churches occurred during revenge attacks following the conflict and the return of Kosovo Albanian refugees.[113] In 1999 KLA fighters were accused of vandalizing Devič monastery and terrorizing the staff. 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.[114][115]

Karima Bennoune, United Nations special rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, referred to the many reports of widespread attacks against churches committed by the Kosovo Liberation Army.[116] In 2014, John Clint Williamson announced EU Special Investigative Task Force's investigative findings and he indicated that a certain element of the KLA following the conclusion of the war (June 1999) intentionally targeted minority populations in organized ethnic cleansing campaign with acts of persecution that also included desecration and destruction of churches and other religious sites.[117] Fabio Maniscalco, an Italian archaeologist, specialist about the protection of cultural property, described that KLA members seized icons and liturgical ornaments as they ransacked and that they proceeded to destroy Christian Orthodox churches and monasteries with mortar bombs after the arrival of KFOR.[118]

Prison camps

Sexual violence

Since the entry of the NATO-led Kosovo Force, rapes of Serb and Romani, as well as Albanian women perceived as collaborators, by ethnic Albanians and sometimes by KLA members have been documented.[124][125][126]

Status as a terrorist group

The Yugoslav authorities, under Slobodan Milošević, regarded the KLA as terrorist group.[127] 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".[128][129][130] UN resolution 1160 took a similar stance.[131][132]

Monument to Serbs killed by “KLA” in Mitrovica

But the 1997 U.S. State Department's terrorist list hadn't included the KLA.[133] 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,[132] and the U.S. government approached the KLA leaders to make them interlocutors with the Serbs.[134][135] A Wall Street Journal article claimed later that the U.S. government had in February 1998 removed the KLA from the list of terrorist organisations,[134][136] a removal that has never been confirmed.[132] France didn't delist the KLA until late 1998, after strong U.S. and UK lobbying.[137] KLA is still present in the MIPT Terrorism Knowledge Base list of terrorist groups,[127] and is listed as an inactive terrorist organisation by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism.[138]

During the war, the KLA troops collaborated with the NATO troops, and one of its members was called by NATO the embodiment of the Kosovo "freedom fighters". In late 1999 the KLA was disbanded and its members entered the Kosovo Protection Corps.[134]

Investigations for war crimes

In 2010, a report by the Council of Europe accused KLA guerrillas of killing civilian Serbs and ethnic Albanian political opponents.[139]

Based on the Council of Europe report, the Special Investigative Task Force (SITF) created in 2011 to investigate the allegations. The SITF chief prosecutor presented his general findings in 2014 and then the specialist chambers created in The Hague to adjudicate the cases.[140]

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.[141] The court will adjudicate cases against individuals based on a 2010 Council of Europe report by the Swiss senator Dick Marty.[142] 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.[143]

On June 24, 2020, the Kosovo Specialist Chambers and Specialist Prosecutor's Office filed a ten-count Indictment, charging president Hashim Thaçi, Kadri Veseli and others for crimes against humanity and war crimes.[25] The prosecutors said that Hashim Thaci and Kadri Veseli repeatedly tried to obstruct and undermine the work of the KSC (Special Court of Kosovo), "in an attempt to ensure that they do not face justice".[144]

In July 2020, Thaçi was questioned by war crimes prosecutors at The Hague.[145]

In September 2020, the Agim Ceku was summoned by the prosecutors as war crimes suspect.[146]

Prominent people

See also


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