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Kosovo: Murder of Former UCK Commander Raises Questions

  • Jolyon Naegele

The murder this week of a prominent former Kosovo Liberation Army commander, the second in less than a month, has angered international observers in Kosovo. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports that there are many possible motives -- and suspects -- for this latest murder.

Prague, 11 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Ekrem Rexha, widely known by his nom de guerre, Drini, was among the best educated and most politically moderate commanders of the now disbanded Kosovo Liberation Army, UCK. Rexha was the "darling" of the international community. He had a master's degree in political science and was fluent in seven languages, including English.

Three days ago (Monday), one or more assailants fired at least eight bullets at the former commander of the Pastrik zone, killing him. UN police in Prizren, Kosovo, where the shooting occurred, say Rexha was repairing a slashed tire of his car, parked near his home, when he was shot from a red Opel believed to be carrying two people.

The killing in Prizren comes just three weeks after the April 17 shooting death of another former UCK commander in Pristina, Besim Mala, resulting from a dispute with a business partner that turned into a gunfight.

But it was Rexha's murder this week that deeply outraged the United Nation's chief administrator in Kosovo, Bernard Kouchner.

"The cold blood (sic) murder of Ekrem Rexha is a tragedy for Prizren and for all of Kosovo."

Kouchner eulogized Rexha as a popular and talented public figure who, he said, "was an important ally for all who work for peace, tolerance, and reconstruction in Kosovo."

Some moderate Kosovar Albanian politicians, such as Center-Liberal party leader Naim Maloku, perceive Rexha's murder as probably rooted in domestic politics. In the past few months, Rexha had served as Prizren's director of environment and safety. Popular and widely respected, he was known for his independent views and was considered to have an excellent chance at winning mayoral elections in Prizren later this year.

Radio Prizren, which has devoted considerable attention to Rexha's murder, received an anonymous telephone call yesterday (Wednesday) warning that its building would be blown up unless it changes its programming. The caller said Rexha was not a respectable person.

But the former spokesman of the Kosovo Liberation Army, Jakup Krasniqi, who now chairs the Party of Democratic Progress, rejects domestic politics as a motive.

"I don't believe that those behind the murder are from Prizren, where [Rexha] lived and worked with others from the UCK, where seven political parties are present and where evidently there was no political split. Moreover, it is hard to believe that political motives were behind this murder."

Krasniqi says that Serbia's security service could be behind the killing.

Belgrade could have had several reasons for wanting Rexha out of the way. Sowing political discord is one possible motive. Vengeance is another.

Rexha was perhaps more responsible than anyone else in the Kosovo Liberation Army for forcing the Serbs to withdraw from Kosovo last June. He commanded Albanian insurgents on Mount Pastrik, which overlooks Prizren and is the main route through the narrow Drini Valley linking Kosovo and Albania. This was the main exodus route for refugees. It also probably would have become the main overland route into Kosovo if NATO had entered into a ground war.

During the NATO air strikes, the Yugoslav army kept a large part of its tanks hidden in a forest on the slopes of Mount Pastrik. Late last May, when the skies finally cleared after months of bad weather, Rexha's units engaged the Yugoslav forces in battle, drawing out the tanks from their hiding places and enabling NATO to demolish a large part of the Yugoslav armor. The Pentagon announced that the Yugoslav military had suffered hundreds of deaths on Mount Pastrik. Shortly afterwards, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic finally capitulated to NATO's demands for a full military and police withdrawal from Kosovo.

But vengeance could also have been a motive for another group to target Rexha -- Kosovar Albanians. A large part of the killings of Kosovar Albanian civilians by Serbian forces during the NATO air strikes occurred in Rexha's area of responsibility. It is conceivable -- in an area where traditions of family honor are still deeply revered -- that the disarmed former commander was targeted for blood vengeance by someone whose family members had been raped or murdered by the Serbs.

Finally, some initial reports suggested that the murder was probably linked to organized crime, which has experienced a renaissance in Kosovo in the past 11 months. Political observers in Kosovo reject this out of hand, saying Rexha's talents were as a strategist and an independent thinker. Nevertheless, it cannot be ruled out that criminal elements in Prizren perceived Rexha as a potential foe and decided to eliminate him while he was still unarmed and unprotected.