The Big Secret
By Dave Bundy
The NATO - Yugoslav war produced many pains, aggravations and quite a few surprises. One of them is the Yugoslav Army’s only raid into neighboring Albania.
It has to be a surprise if only for one reason: Yugoslavia is the only party of this conflict which has the following crucial interest -- to not carry this conflict over their border. And despite of this, they did.
What was the reason for this singular raid?
Destroying the KLA training camp? Nonsense, it is easier done inside Yugoslavia.
Destroying the KLA's munitions? Also nonsense, their artillery is quite good for that from a safe distance from the other side of the border if this is necessary.
Then why? There must be other reasons. And there were other reasons.
The single most important question about this raid is why it was carried out; thus far, why was there only a single raid of this war?
Let's start from the beginning, let's examine what was the situation before the Yugoslav raid.
Well known fact that this section of the Albanian-Yugoslav border -- around Kamenica -- became the most important crossing point for the KLA guerrillas. Accordingly, the small villages around the border became the staging points, munitions dumps and headquarters of the Albanian guerrillas. The Albanian government and subsequently the NATO recognized this, so during the week between April 4th and 10th the previously ill-equipped Albanian Army reinforced the northern border areas with - unfortunately - only antiquated artillery pieces. The NATO realized this also and on Saturday, April 9th Nato ground troops increase its presence in Albania - aircraft were arriving every 15 minutes with men and weapons.
During the same week, between 4th and 10th of April the commander of the KLA , the 53 years old Xheladin Gashi traveled from his mountain bases to meetings in Kukes, the nearby town of Kamenica with Albanian security forces and an "official" from the American embassy in Tirana. (We do not know who this "official" was, but it can be presumed quite accurately that he was someone from the CIA or from the American Military Intelligence).
At the meeting Gashi said the agreement signed by the KLA in Rambouillet, near Paris - which provided for three years of autonomy for Kosovo under Serbian authority and Nato guarantor troops - was no longer relevant. "After the massacres in Kosovo this agreement is finished. No Kosovar can live under Serbian control. An independent Kosovo is the only solution now," he said. He also stated after the secret meeting: "We do not need Nato troops to go into Kosovo," he said. "We need anti-tank weapons. The KLA can then take the offensive."
Of course, almost nothing is published about this meeting, maybe some small hints in several newspapers, like in The Times on the 7th of April. Sam Kiley reported in The Times that the rebels offered to be Nato's land force. American officials now hear an urgent plea by guerrilla leader for anti-tank guns. According to Mr. Kiley " The Kosovo Liberation Army yesterday launched a desperate appeal for military aid to defend up to half a million ethnic Albanians in villages the guerrillas still hold against the Serb onslaught and vowed to become "Nato's ground troops" in the Balkan campaign."
To underscore this plea, Mr. Kiley made an interview somewhere in northern Albania, with Xheladin Gashi, a member of the KLA's general staff and a regional commander, who said that his forces needed every kind of weapon, especially they need to have anti-tank guns. Mr.Xheladin Gashi then talked about everything in that interview except one: on that secret meeting there was an agreement to hold an other meeting, but this time with NATO, particularly American participation, and holding it in Kamenica. The timing of the meeting remained secret.
But in the next few days something changed. A few days earlier the Yugoslav authorities arrested two "aid workers", the 49-year-old Steve Pratt and Peter Wallace, 30. Later on Antony Robbins, a spokesman for aid organization CARE International will insist that the two men are completely innocent, but the Yugoslav counterintelligence knows otherwise, mainly because Steve Pratt and Peter Wallace presumably tell everything. The Yugoslav high command shifts gears and planned its action.
First, - as we can calculate from different press reports -- they decided to employ several diversions: the Yugoslav government notifies Cyprus, they maybe ready to free the captured Americans and set the negotiating date on the 9th of April. With this the Yugoslavs forced the NATO to focus on that direction and - according to The Times :
"Nato cleared a "safe corridor" through its bombardment last night in the hope that the Cypriot mission to Belgrade would win the release of the three captured American soldiers."
Of course, the negotiating dragged on for two days and -- probably following the Yugoslav plans - it was to be rejected with the blame on the NATO, especially on the Americans.
Then the Yugoslavs enlist the Russians also to divert attention, Yeltsin implies that "Russia [is] targeting nuclear missiles at NATO countries". The West became horrified, within hours Britain was seeking "urgent clarification" from Russia over claims that Moscow has targeted its strategic nuclear missiles on the Nato countries attacking Yugoslavia.
At the same time - almost unnoticed - Yugoslav and Albanian forces have exchanged fire in a clash along the Kosovo border.
Andrea Angeli, a spokesman for the 54-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said he believed the incident also involved members of the Kosovo Liberation Army. He said the clash erupted in the area between Padesh and Kamenica near Tropoja, a former KLA stronghold. The number of Kosovo rebels still in Tropoja is not known.
Inside the NATO
On the other front - according to the American promise made at the earlier meeting with Mr. Xheladin Gashi, the member of the KLA's general staff and a regional commander, it was decided that one of Britain's top soldiers heads the crack force from which 8,000 Nato troops will be sent to Albania as "part of allied efforts to ease the Kosovan refugee crisis". Major General John Reith, a former Paratroop commander who saw service with peacekeeping forces in Bosnia, heads the Allied Command Europe -- known as ACE -- Mobile Force (Land). The unit, based in Heidelberg, Germany, acts as a watchdog force, ready to pounce in the event of an attack on one of the small states on Nato's southern or eastern periphery.
Inside Kosovo The Sunday Times' reporter - the first Western journalist inside the war torn country - reported on the following (which was published on the Times April 11th addition): "Clearly, the ruthless Serbian war machine is far from crippled. Up here, in this small area of Kosovo between Pec and Istok, it is hammering the remnants of the KLA with impunity. But thousands of civilians are hemmed in by the fighting in this small patch of KLA-held territory. For a week the Serbian military has steadily tightened its grip. As I left precipitately on Thursday night - ordered out by the KLA, which was losing ground and feared for my safety..."
This same reporter - maybe inadvertently - set some light to the Western claim why so many men are missing from the refugees reaching Macedonia or Albania. His report follows: " There were dozens of uniformed KLA fighters in the villages. My impression was that the locals respected the KLA for fighting to keep out the Serbs, but feared its rigid discipline. The guerrilla movement seemed to have eyes and ears everywhere and forbade men of fighting age to leave this part of Kosovo without permission, a restriction that rankled. Virtually KLA fighters drove the only cars on the road. Nobody else had access to fuel."
Those rebels inside Kosovo small in number but not for long, if..... There are already training camps set up, one of them is around Kamenica, where - according to Marie Colvin, the writer of The Sunday Times - "...Giylsime Rama's squad, part of 150 KLA soldiers based in the Accursed Mountains that rise along the border between Kosovo and Albania, is training for a coming offensive against the Serbs. Recruits such as Rama are pouring into KLA bases along the border....." ".....Officers and trainees alike are living in spartan conditions in abandoned mining barracks, reached along a rutted, stony track. Bunks have been set up in concrete-floored rooms that are clean but made cold by broken windows. Discipline is strong. The uniforms - many of them US army issue - are new and muddy boots are left in wooden racks at the door of the barracks......."
"We have changed our tactics," the commander said. "Now we have to build an army. This will take time."
So the training outside Kosovo and the fighting inside Kosovo intensifies these days. And something else : On Sunday, April 11, Albania welcomes Nato plans to increase significantly the number of troops in the country after a spate of border incidents in which Kosovan rebels and Albanians came under fire from Serb mortars and machineguns. Observers with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said that three Albanian civilians and four fighters with the Kosovo Liberation Army were killed after four Albanian villages came under Serb attack.
"After four days of fighting along the border, at least ten wounded Albanian and KLA soldiers were being treated in the Bajram Curri hospital, sparking belligerent statements by the Serb and Albanian Governments and fears that the two countries were sliding into an all-out war." -- said Sam Kiley in The Times.
Petro Koci, Albania's Interior Minister more and more nervous, he knows exactly what is going on, so he proclaimed: "Nato needs to intervene to neutralize the Serb artillery..."
Also on Sunday the Albanian Government meets in emergency session.
In Belgrade, Serbian State television said Albanian forces were supporting an attempted incursion into Kosovo by hundreds of KLA fighters.
The NATO briefs the world: "On the week between 11th and 17th of April about 8,000 troops, mainly Americans, are due to arrive in Albania. They will be backed by 24 Apache attack helicopters (their arriving time is fixed during this time with no delay on sight) and an additional 82 warplanes. "
On 11th of April, also Sunday, KLA guerrillas and Serb forces traded machine-gun fire near Kamenica in the remote Tropoje border district. While border clashes are not unusual, the skirmishes of the past 48 hours have been particularly fierce and prolonged so much that "Yugoslavia and Albania accused each other of risking a wider war in the Balkans". (Express 04-12-1999)
What no one knows, or at least very few read into a Telegraph report, which says the following on Monday 12 April 1999: US open secret talks on arming KLA. In the article written by Tim Butcher the writer states: "AMERICA has started secret negotiations with the Kosovo Liberation Army about supplying it with specialist weapons to attack Serb ground forces in Kosovo that continue to evade Nato's air campaign.
Frustrated at the lack of progress against Serbian tanks, artillery and armored vehicles, Washington has started sounding out other trusted Nato partners, including Britain, about arming the KLA with wire-guided missiles. It comes after desperate pleas for help from the KLA by satellite phone to American military advisers. The KLA says all it needs is a relatively small amount of equipment to inflict significant damage on the Serbian security forces."....."...... The worsening situation faced by the KLA on the ground is believed to be forcing the Clinton administration to make up its mind swiftly......"
".....Yesterday (April 11th, Sunday) Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, said he had been in touch with Hashim Thaci, a senior KLA figure, by satellite phone.... Mr. Cook said Mr. Thaci gave a description,.... that the KLA has a massive inferiority in the amount of heavy weapons and artillery and it is this shortfall that the plan from Washington is supposed to help fill. The equipment being considered for shipment to Kosovo includes wire-guided anti-tank missiles, medium mortars and other weapons useful against armor...."
Also on the same day, the Telegraph reports the following by Julius Strauss: "THE Kosovo Liberation Army, the ethnic Albanian guerrilla group which has come under sustained Serb attack, is on the verge of collapse, Western diplomats and military analysts said yesterday. Despite initial successes in holding back the advance of the Yugoslav army, which launched a blistering attack against ethnic Albanian strongholds two weeks ago, the guerrillas are running out of guns, ammunition, soldiers, food and communications equipment."
In Brussels the time is running out for the NATO, they need the KLA. And they decided to help them and ordered American and British commandos into action. Philip Shrewell of the Telegraph reported: "BRITISH and American Special Forces teams are working undercover in Kosovo with the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army to identify Serbian targets for Nato bombing raids. .......SAS soldiers fluent in Albanian and Serbian have dodged minefields and Serbian patrols around the torched villages along Kosovo's border with Albania and Macedonia to enter the war-battered province on surveillance missions. One of their priorities is to pinpoint the location of Serbian tanks and weapons which - as The Telegraph revealed last week - have been hidden in garages, buildings and even mosques in villages "ethnically cleansed" of their Albanian populations. Nato later admitted that it was frustrated by the success of the Serbian tactics. The SAS is also advising the rebels at their strongholds in northern Albania, where the KLA has launched a major recruitment and training operation."
According to high-ranking KLA officials, the SAS is using two camps near Tirana, the Albanian capital, and another on the Kosovan border, (presumably Kamenica) to teach KLA officers how to conduct intelligence-gathering operations on Serbian positions.
And of course from this point on, everything is in high gear. Monday, 12 of April Britain and its Nato allies meet and underline their resolve to continue the campaign of air strikes against Yugoslavia. The next day after an emergency meeting of Nato foreign ministers in Brussels, Mr. Solana said the air strikes were "taking a heavy toll" on the Serb leader's army.
The next day is the 13th of April and Tuesday. Early morning two helicopters lift up from the Tirana airport, one Albanian and one French. Beside the crew there were 19 persons onboard. The flight was super-secret.
What the Nato doesn't know: Belgrade has a crystal clear idea, what's going on and the NATO is the one who is in dark. They don't know yet that the other side of the border some four hundred Serb soldiers, the very best crack troops of the Yugoslav Army is waiting for the final order.
The Lightning Raid
Let's see, what happened and how it happened.
Tuesday, April 13th started out as a very strange day.
On one hand, London started to sound more and more hawkish. According to the NewsWire(13 April 1999 18:03): "Prime Minister Tony Blair today ordered British reinforcements into the Balkans as Yugoslav and Albanian troops were reported to have been involved in border clashes. After US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov failed to achieve a breakthrough in talks in Oslo, Mr. Blair told the Commons a second Armored Battle Group would be sent to the region."
Also...in America, the Pentagon is expected to approve a Nato request for more than 300 additional warplanes.
France and Germany are also expected to announce increases in their forces within the next few days.
There are already 700 planes in the Nato force.
In London too (The Express on 13 April, 1999): "Britain's HMS Invincible is sailing into the warzone carrying a potent force of seven Navy Harrier jets, supported by the destroyer HMS Newcastle..." Mr.Cook said extra Nato troops were arriving in Albania and the aircraft carrier HMS Invincible would be in the region within 48 hours. Mr Cook also said he met Jakup Krasniqi of the KLA..."
On the other side of the Albanian-Yugoslav border something very extraordinary is happening also. Even the people in Macedonia are sensing, there is a strange feeling, according to the NewsWire: "...An uneasy peace was tonight settling on the town of Kukes....." Just a day before, thousand and thousand of refugees were pouring out of Yugoslavia, but Tuesday morning none...
Something is going on for sure.
The west is off balance, they speculate: this is a new trick, the Serbs now turning around the columns of the unfortunates.
Then the news came, short, vague, but news: "....Serb forces took Kamenica, a hamlet close to the border, close to a key supply base for the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) after shelling it for several days, Petro Koci, the Albanian Interior Minister, said...."
Early morning on that Tuesday on April 13th no one noticed anything special in this bordertown, Kamenica, where a large number of KLA troops stationed. Most of the fighters had no idea that very soon two helicopters will land in Bajram Curri some 7 miles from Kamenica.
The choppers landed there for safety reasons, Kamenica is to close to the border and in the range of the Yugoslav artillery. The passengers will change their choppers to jeeps and will proceed in the early hours to Kamenica where they will hold an important meeting with guerilla leaders.
Most of the Albanians, in Kamenica, had no knowledge of this meeting. However, the arrival of the guests was very well known on the other side of the border, in the staging area of the Serb commandos - waiting for their order.
It was well into the morning when the jeep caravan arrived in Kamenica and the parties started the meeting that went into the afternoon.
The border police's radio traffic from near the village of Kamenica sounded normal during the first half of the day, they were just curious: will the Serb repeat the sporadic shelling of the tiny hamlets as they did yesterday or day before yesterday?
Then at almost exactly 1 o’clock in the afternoon all hell broke loose. The Serb cannons were opening up. And approximately 10 minutes after the explosions started, the tone of the radio messages abruptly changed. Border police were yelling to their commander that Serb soldiers crossed into Albania from neighboring Kosovo and were advancing on their post.
The Times later reported - although vaguely -: They were already firing their weapons at that time,'' said Pier Gonggrijp, a monitor for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe who was listening to the radio traffic 7 miles away in Bajram Curri.
What the Albanian border guards were describing was the start of the first known and only Yugoslav ground incursion into Albania since NATO air attacks on Yugoslavia began three weeks ago and the most daring action by the Yugoslav Army.
The Albanian borderguards became frantic, but their commander could not help, he could only radio to the guards: ``We will support you.'' The guards replied that they were surrounded and would withdraw.
From the new position, the border guards went on the radio again, their message a short time later estimated the number of Yugoslav soldiers in Kamenica at 50 and said:..." houses were burning."
Mr.Gonggrijp saw flames on the mountain from the roof of the hotel the OSCE works out of Bajram Curri.
After the initial shelling the Serbian artillery shifted fire and shelled the place around the village in order to prevent any outside help coming in. The Serb commando entered Kamenica and after a hard, but fast attack they pinned down the panicked KLA, and captured the village. In the relatively short time - the battle lasted about half an hour - the Serbians managed to kill more than 800 KLA members (we still don’t know the exact number), than conducted a very fast paced house-to-house search. They know what to look for and it is sure, they found it: a group of KLA members hiding in the basement of one of the houses. All of them were high-ranking leaders of the group and all of them were shot on the spot. Unsurprised, the Yugoslav troops found the "guests" as well , a group of 19 high-ranking US officers, including a general. All of them were arrested and in pairs were taken to the other side of the border.
By 1:30 p.m., a half-hour after the shelling had started, border guards reported the Yugoslav solders were starting to pull out, and the inspector urged them to try to take the high ground above the village. He again promised they would be backed by force.
By 1:55, low clouds and heavy drizzle moved in to obscure the OSCE observers' view from Bajram Curri.
The shooting ended five minutes later, but the inspector warned his men to watch out for Yugoslav snipers and artillery.
By 2:15, the village was reported clear of all Yugoslav forces.
By the time Serb forces withdrew 75 minutes later, houses in Kamenica were on fire and Albanian troops had fired back with guns and artillery in what monitors described as the first response by a neighboring army to Yugoslav provocation. There were no reports of casualties.
Also, it is very strange that journalists could not reach Kamenica to examine the damage, blocked about a mile away by Albanian army. Capt. Qamie Katoroshi claimed that KLA fighters had taken over the border post at Kosare in recent fighting. Gonggrijp called that an unconfirmed rumor.
A few soldiers from the Albanian army hung around at a muddy crossroads several kilometers short of Kamenica, watching the tiny settlement. "It is too dangerous to go any further," said Captain Qamil Katuroshi, as two KLA soldiers trotted up on a pair of ponies. "The situation was terrible. Now it's quieter."
Hours after the clash was over, he described the urgent exchange between the panicked border guards and their commander.
In Belgrade, Yugoslav officials denied any incursions into Albania. The chief of its army information service, Col. Milivoje Novkovic, said on state television that Yugoslavia's defense of its own borders was ``being fabricated as an alleged invasion.''
After getting the bad news Pandeli Majko, the Albanian Prime Minister, held an emergency meeting with Luan Hajdaraga, his Defense Minister, and Aleks Andoni, the Albanian Army Chief of Staff, and pledged to co-ordinate a response closely with Nato which is setting up its headquarters in the Albanian Ministry of Defense. But there was very little to do.
The NATO was equally furious, it too couldn't do anything other than issuing a warning after the cross-border raid.
The very next day - as The Times reported - AMERICAN and Nato officials fear that a spy within the alliance may be tipping off Belgrade. They didn't mention the Yugoslav raid, instead of that they cited "about when and where to expect airstrikes." They said: "...On at least three occasions Serb authorities have cleared people from target sites shortly before they were struck, raising suspicions that President Milosevic is receiving advance warning of some Nato attack plans, according to US news reports citing officials in Washington and Brussels. " What is unbelievable about this reasoning is that it is inconceivable that NATO officials will cry "SPY" after "three occasions...". Instead of that - it is more plausible - they ordered a secret investigation to find out: who gave information to the Serbs about the ill-fated meeting between the American officers and the KLA.
We also should note the timing right after the border raid. More suspicious, General Wesley Clark himself, the Nato Supreme Allied Commander, who did not rule out the possibility of espionage at a news briefing, said that steps were being taken to stop secret military plans falling into Serb hands. "Nato remains very vigilant in terms of protecting the security of its operations, and we are taking all appropriate measures in that regard," he said. Wesley Clark’s statement speaks for itself.
The footnote of this strange and daring raid: according to our information, the 19 captured NATO officers are now being kept in a military prison in Belgrade.