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Lightning Strikes

According to the accounts of eight Serbian fighters who were in Cuska or knew about the attack, the May 14 massacre was the work of some of Serbia's most elite police, army, and militia units -- troops closely directed by Slobodan Milosevic's senior generals. Also present were violent militia gangs commonly used as shock troops. Among the Serbian units at Cuska:

The Frenkies, a commando unit named for Franko Simatovic, one of Milosevic's most notorious agents who is reputed to be a veteran commander from the Bosnian war.

The OPG, or Operativna Grupa, an elite Serbian police unit that proudly called itself "Fog" because it supposedly left no trace. The OPG was said to receive its orders from a senior general in Milosevic's Interior Ministry. Fighters told us the OPG was behind an earlier massacre at a village named Racak that drew international condemnation and spurred the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal's Kosovo investigation.

Yugoslav 3rd Army snipers unit, a group said to be under the direct command of the 3rd Army's top general.

The militia gang Munja, or Lightning.

  Srecko Popovic (second from left) and Slavisa Kastrotovic (third from left) pictured in camouflage with unidentified men.

Lightning was a strange amalgamation of cops, criminals, and self-proclaimed patriots that became legendary for ruthless attacks on the KLA and Albanian civilians. Among the 17 Serbian fighters we meet in Montenegro is Branko, a thickset, middle-aged veteran of the Lightning militia. Branko tells us he grew up in Pec and joined Lightning three months before NATO's air war.

"I was told when I joined [Lightning] that our task would be ethnic cleansing -- expelling people from their houses," Branko says. "We had other jobs, too, not just cleansing. We made arrests, mostly targeting Albanian leaders and eliminating all those who supported the idea of an independent Kosovo. Not only KLA leaders, but influential Albanians, the intellectuals."

Serbian authorities have long denied any connection to militias like Lightning. But the Serbian fighters we spoke with say the militias -- including Lightning -- were "special units" under the control of the army and police. Indeed, one of the most widely known and feared Lightning commanders, a man named Vidomir Salipur, was actually a Serbian police officer. Salipur was killed in a KLA ambush in April, 1999, and his funeral was a major event in Pec. Even his death notice mentions his connection to Lightning. Yet despite his notoriety as a militia commander, Salipur's obituary is posted on the official web site of the Serbian Interior Ministry, in the section for slain officers.

By most accounts, officer Salipur's death left Lightning in the control of a convicted felon named Nebojsa Minic. Such were the peculiar bedfellows engaged in Slobodan Milosevic's war on Kosovo: cops and criminals fought side-by-side. Minic is a 38-year-old Serb who calls himself "The Dead" and is said to sport a large tattoo of a corpse on his chest.

Branko, the former Lightning member, says during the war Minic killed dozens of Albanians in and around Pec. "He was extreme from the beginning," Branko says. "He was a man on the edge, always. He was full of hatred for Albanians. He had done criminal activities with them and was double-crossed. So he was full of revenge. And he would murder an entire family, a mother, brother, or sister, just for that."

  Vidomir Salipur (center standing) and Nebjosa Minic (right, standing) with heavily-armed militia members and captured Albanian symbol.

Several witnesses, both Albanian villagers and Serbian militiamen, identify Nebojsa Minic as one of the militia commanders in Cuska on May 14. With Minic was the heavyset man from the snapshots, Burdush, whose real name is Srecko Popovic. Another Lightning member, Petar, says Minic and Popovic were field commanders at Cuska. But Petar insists the battle plans and execution lists came from high-level army and police officials who directed the operation.

"We were given lists from the police commanders of those Albanians who were loyal to the KLA or had links to them," says Petar. "The aim was to cleanse the village. We were ordered to separate the women and children from men. We took any male more than 15 years old."

Several fighters told us the assault on Cuska was planned in a meeting of army and police commanders in Pec on May 11. A Yugoslav Army log book, signed by the regional military commander -- an Army colonel -- appears to confirm that troop reinforcements were sent to Cuska three days before the attack. American RadioWorks got a copy of a decree signed by that same Yugoslav army colonel announcing the imposition of martial law in Pec and neighboring districts in late March. The decree established a governing emergency council and gave the Army absolute authority in the region, including in Cuska. These documents and statements from the fighters we interviewed refute Yugoslav army assertions that its units were not involved in attacks on civilians.

According to Serbian police sources, the execution lists came from local army and police commanders as well as higher up the chain of command. An officer from an elite Serbian secret police unit told us he relayed detailed orders for arrests and deportations directly to police and militia commanders in western Kosovo, including Lightning. He says these orders originated in the Serbian Interior Ministry headquarters in Belgrade.

"The order to force Albanians out came from Belgrade, from the very top," the officer says. "Our initial focus was on areas where the KLA had support, like Pec."

But this officer adds that what began, for him, as a legitimate battle against Albanian terrorists -- the KLA -- quickly descended into a total war against Albanian civilians. It was a war in which any able-bodied Albanian man was considered a potential terrorist.

"Once the air strikes began," says the officer, "everything got worse. We became more dependent on the militias and special units because our army recruits and reservists were not doing the job. Everything got turned upside down. Here I was, a cop, having to work with criminals who should be arrested."

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