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Part II: Investigating an intelligence service in the shadows.
PRISTINA, Kosovo — It’s known as K-SHIK, an Albanian-language acronym for Kosovo’s National Intelligence Service, and it has always operated in the shadows of Kosovo’s darkest corners.
That is, until now. GlobalPost has interviewed a key informant in a criminal investigation into alleged K-SHIK assasinations as well as several victims of alleged K-SHIK intimidation tactics. In a series of extraordinarily candid interviews, these sources have come forward to shed new light on U.S. support of K-SHIK’s operations in Kosovo and K-SHIK’s alleged history of targeting political opponents for intimidation — and allegedly murder.
Setting up a headquarters here in Kosovo’s capital in the aftermath of the 1999 war, the notorious intelligence agency became an extra-legal entity that was at first under the command of the victorious and U.S.-allied guerrilla movement, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).
Later it was directed by the Democratic Party of Kosovo, American and Kosovar sources say. The party’s leader is the prime minister, Hashim Thaci, who was recently elected to a second term and who continues to receive support from the highest levels of power in Washington.
Today, there is no longer a physical headquarters and officially the intelligence service does not exist, according to the man who headed up the agency for nine years. But sources connected to SHIK, as it is most commonly known, maintain that it remains active in enforcing the political status quo through fear and intimidation.
The United States and other NATO countries who fought to oust Yugoslav forces from Kosovo in 1999 provided support for SHIK, according to the intelligence service’s own former chief.
The former head of the intelligence service, Kadri Veseli, a key ally of Thaci, revealed in an exclusive interview with GlobalPost that he received U.S. support, saying, “We had a lot of partners — 25 intelligence services … . The U.S., they help us a lot.”
Veseli denies that SHIK carried out systematic political killings, but he says that the foreign intelligence services assisted SHIK “in every way.” He refused to discuss specifics of how the organization operated.
A half dozen sources, including another former SHIK operative, a former KLA fundraiser, a Western diplomat with knowledge of the region and a Kosovar political analyst, confirmed that the United States has supported SHIK, which was never formally overseen by a government or international body.
The former hitman
In a house heavily guarded by NATO troops, the former self-proclaimed SHIK hitman, Nazim Bllaca, told GlobalPost that SHIK orchestrated a campaign of political murder after the 1999 war ended. During that period, he said, hundreds of minority Kosovar Serbs and Kosovar Albanians suspected of collaborating with Slobodan Milosevic’s forces or being members of a party opposed to the victorious KLA were killed. It is unknown how many of these alleged murders prosecutors in Kosovo believe were carried out by SHIK, but since talking to GlobalPost, Bllaca has agreed to testify in another trial that began in mid-March of two former KLA soldiers with whom he has told prosecutors he killed an Albanian man in June 1999.
The NATO troops outside Bllaca’s door were there to protect him, he explained, from possible assassins trying to silence him as he has come forward to provide testimony against SHIK.
“I was part of a criminal and illegal organization called SHIK,” Bllaca said. “I am the author of one killing and I assisted in many others … . Personally, my group and I were working on collaborators and political killings.”
Two Kosovo Albanian politicians, one a former deputy prime minster, backed up the claims of the self-proclaimed hitman, saying that agents of the intelligence service tried to kill them. Bllaca said it was, in fact, his team that tried to kill the two men.
Prosecutors at EULEX, a mission of the European Union that works with Kosovo officials on enforcing the rule of law, are preparing Bllaca’s indictment on charges of murder, attempted murder and involvement in organized crime, according to EULEX documents seen by GlobalPost, and according to Bllaca himself, who is cooperating with EULEX prosecutors. Bllaca has told prosecutors that a senior former KLA official ― a close ally of Thaci named Azem Syla ― ordered him to do the killings. EULEX prosecutors declined to say whether they planned to indict anyone else connected to the murders.
“My goal is to shed light on all the killings in Kosovo,” Bllaca said.
Veseli denied that he or SHIK had ever been involved in murder or any crime. “Nazim Bllaca was never part of SHIK,” said Veseli, 43, during a more than two-hour interview in a restaurant in Pristina. “We were never in touch with him.”
Neither Veseli nor Thaci has been charged in a criminal case.