Friday, March 10, 2006

Agim Ceku: Recurrent thorn in Serbia's side

By Matthew Robinson PRISTINA, Serbia and Montenegro, March 10 (Reuters) -

Agim Ceku, the new prime minister of the breakaway province of Kosovo, is a former Yugoslav army officer who studied military tactics in the Serbian capital, only to fight two wars in a decade against Serb forces. As a commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), Ceku, 45, came late to its 1998-99 guerrilla war against Serbia, but brought with him experience as a high-ranking officer in the 1991-95 Croatian war for independence from Yugoslavia. Feted as a military strategist, his sudden rise to political pre-eminence this month made waves in Belgrade, where an arrest warrant accusing him of war crimes sits gathering dust.

Twice arrested and twice released, the bulky ethnic Albanian's new mission is to secure independence via negotiation, with mid-level Serbs and Albanians due to meet for a second round of U.N.-mediated talks next week in Vienna. Born on Oct. 29, 1960 near the western town of Pec, Ceku left Kosovo as a teenager to study at the 2nd Belgrade military school. He later graduated from military academy in Croatia, becoming an artillery commander in the Yugoslav People's Army.

When fighting broke out in the Croatian republic in 1991, Ceku sided with the Croats against the Serbs. ARRESTED Ceku was reportedly in the thick of the action, including the 1995 Croatian operation "Storm" which swept away the Belgrade-backed rebel Serb republic, sent 200,000 Serbs fleeing, and effectively ended the war. In March 1999, he slipped back into Serbia's southern province to join the KLA, which had emerged from the hills and forests a year earlier for a guerrilla war to end Serb rule. Serbia's counter-insurgency war was brutal.

With thousands of Albanian civilians killed and many more expelled, NATO began bombing within days of Ceku's return to drive out Serb forces. Kosovo took heart, but the KLA was on the run, driven back by advancing Serb army and police. Ceku overhauled the KLA command structure and was credited with sparking a revival. After 78 days of NATO bombing, Serbia capitulated and the U.N. took control of Kosovo. The KLA agreed to disarm, but was implicated in a wave of revenge attacks that saw half the Serb minority flee. Ceku became commander of the Kosovo Protection Corps, a civil emergency unit created to absorb the former fighters.

To most Kosovo Albanians, it is the nucleus of their future army. Ceku avoided politics, but still made headlines. In 2002, Serbia issued a warrant for his arrest, accusing him of war crimes against Serbs in Croatia and Kosovo. Ceku was detained in Slovenia in Oct. 2003 and again five months later in Hungary. He was quickly released. But Serbia maintains his place is in court, not at the negotiating table.

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