The Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) command announced yesterday that it has complied on time with NATO's requirements that it demilitarize. As RFE/RL's correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports from Pristina, the public announcement appears to signal a new effort by the former guerrilla group to stress its cooperation with the international community and improve its image abroad.
Pristina, 20 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The UCK put on a new and more public relations-minded face yesterday as its usually secretive general staff held its first press conference in Kosovo's capital, Pristina.
Appearing at the press conference were General Agim Ceku, the chief of the UCK's General Staff, and Fatmir Lima, the deputy minister of defense of a provisional government self-declared by the UCK's political leader Hashim Thaci.
Until now, the UCK has displayed a mistrust of journalists, largely rising from what it perceives as critical coverage by the international media. The group has suffered an image problem in the Western media, which in the past has included charges the group has engaged in terrorist activities and speculation as to whether some of its funding might be linked to drug smuggling.
But yesterday's press conference seemed aimed at removing any air of mystery about the UCK and re-introducing it as an accessible organization which -- since NATO's eviction of Serb forces from Kosovo -- has become a major political player in the province.
Both Ceku and Lima said the UCK is doing its utmost to cooperate with the international community and NATO. They announced the UCK has fully complied with a deadline set for yesterday to surrender 60 percent of its armaments and weapons into depots jointly guarded by KFOR and the UCK. That commitment was made on June 21, shortly after NATO-led peacekeepers entered the province.
Ceku and Lima said that meeting the deadline is, in their words, "an indication of the UCK's goodwill, as well as proof that a healthy working relationship exists between the UCK, its General Staff, and the international presence in Kosovo."
The UCK military leaders also, as they put it, "strongly condemned" attempts to create ethnically cleansed entities in the divided city of Kosovska Mitrovica, in Kamenica, and elsewhere in the province.
But they refused any responsibility for ethnic clashes in Kosovo, instead blaming the problem on the power vacuum created by the international community's hesitation to allow the UCK to exercise its influence as a security force. They said such reluctance has encouraged, in their words, "certain elements of different ethnic backgrounds to act as they wish and go unpunished, stealing, burning houses and other similar negative phenomena."
Ceka and Lima also said the organizations they head have conducted a thorough investigation of the UCK and determined that, to quote, "only a very minimal number" of people involved in the disorder were UCK members. They said the names of the offenders will be made public.
General Ceku invited the news media to visit UCK units to see that they are -- again quoting -- "a force for peace and stability, a force that wants to have a secure Kosovo for all its citizens."
Ceka and Lima told reporters that the UCK has a vested interest in helping to transform the province into a democratic society based on respect for human rights, tolerance of diversity and mutual, inter-ethnic cooperation. And they pledged such a Kosovo will be a pillar of regional stability. Agim Ceku said:
"The Kosovo Liberation Army, since it was founded, has made it very clear that it is determined to achieve the creation of a democratic society in Kosovo. This should be a multiethnic society based on tolerance and respect for diversity, a society in which members of different ethnic groups could live together and respect each other. The Kosovo Liberation Army stands behind its commitments."
Ceka said the UCK is undergoing a structural transformation to ensure that new institutions being built in Kosovo will have a healthy and stable foundation.
Turning again to the UCK's June 21 agreements with the international community, the UCK commander called on KFOR to recognize the UCK's commitment to propose individual members to participate in the administration and police forces of Kosovo. This UCK call was originally stated as a clause in the June 21 accord. The clause also calls on KFOR to give consideration to the formation in due course of an army in Kosovo on the lines of the U.S. National Guard.
That call is likely to again prompt debate between the UCK and KFOR over how KFOR sees the June 21 agreement and its own responsibilities under it. KFOR commander Lieutenant General Mike Jackson said after signing the document that it is not an agreement to which KFOR is a party but rather a unilateral undertaking by the UCK. Ceku appeared to want to move the argument beyond just UCK and KFOR by saying the U.N. administration in Kosovo should become involved in the debate.
"We as the Kosovo Liberation Army expect from UNMIC, the United Nations Mission in Kosovo, to respect the commitment made and also everything that follows from that paragraph. Every agreement is based on a mutual obligation, on a mutual understanding of taking responsibility and every side has its own obligations to respect."
Ceku, who is 38 and who has spent the last nine years in exile in Croatia, also revealed a few details of his private life during the press conference.
He said his family has returned to Kosovo, but since his house was razed to the ground during the war, his Croatian wife and their three children are living in a room at a neighbor's house, while he is living at UCK headquarters. In his words, "They are free and very happy in Kosovo, and each and every one speaks excellent Albanian, despite their years of exile."