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Yugoslavia: Former Rebel Commander Killed In Kosovo

Tahir Zemaj, a former commander of the disbanded Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) and a staunch supporter of President Ibrahim Rugova, was shot and killed over the weekend in one of the most serious acts of violence in the UN-administered province in many months.

Prague, 6 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Hundreds of peaceful protesters turned out for candlelight vigils last night in Pristina and Decan following the shooting death on the evening of 4 January of 52-year-old Tahir Zemaj, a former UCK commander.

Also killed in the Peja/Peck attack were Zemaj's 22-year-old son, Enes Zemaj, and 24-year-old nephew, Hasan Zemaj, who headed a youth movement in Decan.

Christian Lindmeier, a spokesman for UNMIK, the UN Mission in Kosovo, described the attack: "[There was a] drive-by shooting in Peja -- two people died on the scene, one later in hospital. One of the victims was Tahir Zemaj."

While declining to go into detail, Lindmeier noted that Zemaj was a very important figure. "Everyone who knows this place knows how -- what a high-level killing this was," Lindmeier said.

UNMIK police spokesman Barry Fletcher suggested that investigators have little to go on. "The subjects fled. At this time, we don't know who they are, and we don't know the motive for the killing," Fletcher said.

News reports say the attackers were in two cars -- one of them had Albanian license plates -- and used an AK-47 assault rifle to shoot the three men as they sat in their parked car.

Zemaj had been the target of several assassination attempts over the last two years. Following one such attempt last August, Zemaj accused allies of a rival former UCK commander, Ramush Haradinaj, of organizing what he called "a politically motivated murder attempt against me and my military staff cooked up by the Belgrade-Athens-Crete-quisling-Tirana kitchen."

Zemaj was reflecting a widely held fear among many Kosovar Albanians that Albanian Socialist Prime Minister Fatos Nano and then-Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic had worked against Kosovo Albanian interests at a Greek-government-sponsored summit of Balkan leaders in Crete in 1997.

Zemaj specifically accused his opponents of fearing the creation of a professional army in Kosovo, because, as he put it, "they felt they would be out of the game and would be unable to achieve their selfish goals for power."

Zemaj, who described himself as a security adviser to President Ibrahim Rugova, had many enemies within the ranks of the former UCK, having commanded a faction known as the Armed Forces of the Republic of Kosovo, or FARK. The Western European-based Kosovo government in exile of Bujar Bukoshi financed FARK from money it raised through a flat income tax collected from members of the Kosovar Albanian diaspora.

The main wing of the UCK, in contrast, was commanded by Hashim Thaci, and was ideologically left-wing and close to Albania's socialist government.

Today's papers in Kosovo note that Zemaj's opponents branded him in books and articles as a "traitor," a "spy," and a "mobster."

Zemaj's last public appearance was as a key witness at an UNMIK trial in Pristina last month of five former UCK insurgents who were convicted of kidnapping, torturing, and killing four FARK fighters near Peja in June 1999. One of the five convicted defendants was the brother of former UCK commander Ramush Haradinaj, whom Zemaj had named as being at the center of the failed assassination plot last August.

Haradinaj, who heads Kosovo's third-largest Albanian party, the Alliance for the Future of Kosovo, or AAK, denounced the trial as politically motivated.

The AAK's parliamentary faction leader, Bujar Dugolli, sought to deflect suspicion that the party was somehow behind this weekend's killings. "These events are unacceptable for us as a political party and do not have our support as a political subject. We think that the competent institutions such as the judiciary and police should be more effective in preventing such acts and in bringing to justice these people and giving them the punishment they deserve," Dugolli said.

A commentary in today's "Koha Ditore" Pristina daily written by Veton Surroi, the paper's publisher and one of Kosovo's leading intellectuals, says Zemaj's murder and other recent acts of violence tied to the UNMIK trial are a "warning of the escalation of the settling of accounts."

Kosovar President Rugova issued a statement calling the Peja shootings a "terrorist act aimed against the progress and independence of Kosovo and the future of our children."

Rugova understands as well as anyone that such violent acts will be perceived by the international community as a sign of inherent instability and thus justify further delaying talks on Kosovo's final status.

Nexhat Daci, the speaker of Kosovo's parliament, expressed similar outrage and frustration with the killings. "It seems to me that it is the youth of Kosovo who are actually being killed. These are mad acts of violence that slow down the process of following our path, and I have nothing to add. Perhaps only by being silent can we express our grief over what is happening to us here," Daci said.

As long as former insurgents and criminal gangs continue to resort to violence to deal with their perceived enemies, it appears likely that Kosovo will remain unsafe not only for former members of FARK and their relatives but for the development of the democratic foundations of a future state.