Note: The following is a description of Serbian police units that participated
in the May 14 assault on Cuska. The details are drawn from fighters' accounts
and western military sources.
Lightning was created in early 1998 in response to widening attacks by the
Kosovo Liberation Army in and around Pec. The unit was established as an auxiliary
to the Special Police Units (PJP) of the Serbian Interior Ministry, according
to several fighters. Lightning had between 30 and 50 members and numerous armored
vehicles which were stored at the Yugoslav Army barracks in Pec before the NATO
air war. "Lightning" units wore the same camouflage uniforms of the
PJP but often attached a shoulder flash of a Lightning bolt. "They were the
guys who would go into places no one else wanted to," says one Serbian police
reservist. "When they were in front of us, our casualties were reduced to
a minimum. Of course, Lightning would destroy everything, and I mean everything."
Like the other Serbian militias, Lightning also benefited from informal connections
to police and military commanders as well as political circles. Several fighters
say the group had close connections in Pec to members of the Serbian Radical Party
of Vojislav Seselj and with the office of the Pec mayor, Jovo Popovic. During
the war, Popovic was deputy chief of the emergency ruling council appointed by
the Yugoslav Army. Another important connection was to the chief of the military
police in Pec, who was said to provide Lightning access to information and operations
in exchange for a cut of looted Albanian property.
Lightning's commander was Nebojsa Minic, a career-criminal who called himself
"The Dead" (Mrtvi). But by most accounts the military brain of the group
was a Serbian police officer named Vidomir Salipur. Salipur had earlier joined
the OPG (Operativna Grupa) as a police officer. According to one police source,
he left the OPG for Lightning for "more autonomy in operations and to be
a commander." Other Lightning members reportedly included: Mico Martinovic,
Djuro Kastratovic, Milan Kaljevic and Obrad Rajicevic.
Lightning participated in several major battles against the KLA, including
one at Jablanica. Salipur and the others were also notorious in Pec for beating
and terrorizing ethnic Albanians. According to the war diary of a local Serbian
woman, the story goes that Albanian mothers would put their children to sleep
singing "sleep, sleep, so that Salipur does not come." By most accounts,
Lightning's members were tight-knit. Salipur's sister was said to be married to
another Lightning commander, Srecko Popovic. Several fighters said Popovic, who
was originally from southern Serbia, arranged the transport of looted property
to Serbia. Popovic reportedly now owns a café in Novi Sad. Following Salipur's
death in a KLA ambush in April, 1999, (read obituary on the Serbian
Interior Ministry site) Lightning fell on hard times. As other members died
in battle its size shrank rapidly so that less than a dozen men are thought to
Not all the Serbian fighters praised Lightning's combat skills. "They
were always screwing things up," said one Serbian police officer, whose job
was to deliver communication equipment and orders to militia units from the Serbian
police command in Pristina. "They were sloppy. They weren't disciplined...But
we needed them."
Top of page
- "Operativna Grupa"
The "Operations Group" was created in Kosovo as a secret, elite "antiterrorist"
unit. According to several Serbian fighters, the OPG participated in some of the
most infamous massacres in Kosovo, including Donje Prekaze, Racak and Cuska. The
OPG consisted of top police officers from throughout Kosovo and from Serbia proper.
The unit was reportedly created in late 1997 and was trained in Serbia. A former
Serbian secret policeman gave a detailed account of the OPG: "There was a
need for this unit because in certain actions (against the KLA) the regular police
units had proved to be ineffectual and were suffering large casualties. The Red
Berets (special forces of the Serbian state security: see below) were too busy
to get involved in operations in the inner part of Kosovo but the police needed units for quick operations that could be carried out in complete secrecy."
"The units usually operated in 12-man or 24-man teams. Men from other
police units had very little contact with the OPG, especially before the air strikes.
That's why they were called Fogthey would disappear without a trace....The
OPG was assigned to special tasks, to destroy the core of enemy units, to make
surprise attacks and to terrorize local Albanian populations. This included killing
civilians in KLA areas in order to quench any desire for insurgency...that was
the case in Racak...OPG was a powerful team and an effective one but they participated
in many crimes that left many civilians dead."
The OPG wore different uniforms for different actions but they were best known
for their black uniforms and their western weaponry. "They didn't use Russian
or Yugoslav-made weapons, you know AK-47s. They had the most modern NATO weapons.
It was impressive." OPG members were reportedly fond of Heckler-Koch machine
Serbian police sources say the OPG was under the direct command of General
Obrad Stevanovic, the commander of Serbia's special police force and one of Slobodan
Milosevic's most important commanders. The OPG was apparently part of the Interior
Ministry's special antiterrorist unit (SAJ), which Gen. Stevanovic commanded.
Founded in 1995 by General Radovan StojicicBadza, the SAJ was by most accounts
the most elite unit within the Serbian Interior Ministry (excluding the Department
of State Security). Following Stojicic's assassination in Belgrade, the SAJ recruited
new members in Kosovo and expanded its size to as many as 1,000 men. The SAJ was
best known for its use of black uniforms and western-made weaponry, according
to military sources.
Top of page
They drive armor-plated Humvees, use the latest in Western weaponry and operate in near-total secrecy. Serbia's most elite fighting forceknown as the Unit for Special Operations (JSO)has earned a reputation of ruthlessness in ten years of war in the Balkans.
In the communist era, it was the all-powerful secret police that enforced the will of the Party. As Yugoslavia disintegrated in the early 1990s, Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic chose this same network of secret police agents to launch wars in Croatia and Bosnia.
Dejan Anastasijevic, a Serbian journalist who has written extensively on Serbia's security forces, says Milosevic's agents struggled to mold a fighting force from ragtag paramilitary gangs. "They consisted mostly of ex-prisoners who were promised reduced sentences," he says. "Formally, these organizations were voluntary and composed of people who wanted to protect Serbs from the Croatian regime. However, it was a state-sanctioned operationbehind them was the state of Serbia, specifically the secret service."
As fighting intensified, Milosevic's police agents assume closer control by creating an elite, highly-disciplined commando squad that would command paramilitary groups and oversee special operations. The unit originally had 50 to 100 men, had no real name and was well equipped with western weaponry and communications gear. "They were the all-star team," says Anastasijevic. To lead the unit, Milosevic's then spymaster Jovica Stanisic chose his most trusted agent, Franko Simatovic.
Unlike other men in his unit who had criminal histories, Simatovic was a career intelligence officer. He spoke fluent English from his days hunting American spies in Belgrade, according to police sources. Curiously, Simatovic is reportedly of Croatian ethnicity, a fact that did not seem to bother his men.
Initially, Simatovic's fighters were identified only by their Red Berets. Their ranks grew slowly, so that by the end of the Bosnian war the unit had several hundred fighters. They were closely associated with warlords like Vojislav Seselj and Zeljko Raznatovic (better known as Arkan).
It was only after the Bosnian war that Simatovic's fighters stepped out of the shadows and received an official namethe Unit for Special Operations (JSO is the Serbian acronym). But to many people, the JSO continued to be known as the "Frenkies," or "Frenki's Boys."
For individual fighters, service to Milosevic's Serbia was secondary to making money. "War is about business, about money," says one former JSO member who served in Kosovo. "That was our reason to fight. Why else take such risks." These fighters say they were given bonuses for combat operations in Kosovo in addition to a percentage of looted Albanian property.
Anastasijevic says the JSO's role was to conduct "black operations." "They were not just swat teams or special forces because Yugoslavia already had such units within the police and military. This unit was for a long time outside of any chain of command. It's highly unusual for the security service to have its own combat unit. Intelligence services are there to get information. But these people are killers. They were Milosevic's Praetorian guard."
When Albanian insurgents began pushing for Kosovo's independence from Serbia by assassinating state officials, JSO units were deployed to crush the rebellion. As fighting intensified and a conflict with NATO loomed, the JSO added at least 500 "reservists."
JSO reservists interviewed for this report said operations in Kosovo initially focused on hitting Albanian guerrilla targets and terrorizing civilian sympathizers. But as soon as Nato launched its air campaign against Serbia, JSO units were ordered to coordinate expulsions of Albanian civilians.
In mid-April, 1999, Milosevic's senior commanders also ordered JSO units to assist in an unusual operation-destroying war crimes evidence by hiding and incinerating bodies of Albanian victims. According to Serbian army and police sources, JSO units escorted deliveries of Albanian corpses to graves in Serbia proper and to the Trepca mining complex in northern Kosovo. There the bodies were burned in the blast furnace of the lead refinery.
According to police and army sources, JSO field operations in Kosovo were led by an officer named Milorad Ulemek, better known as Legija or "The Legion" (he is also known as Milorad Lukovic). Serbian fighters say Ulemek's nickname reflected an earlier career in the French Foreign Legion.
Ulemek led major operations in western Kosovo during the war, according to army and police sources. These included the May 14th attack on Cuska and two other villages in which 72 ethnic Albanians were summarily executed. A Serbian intelligence officer says Ulemek ordered the Cuska assault in a meeting with army and police commanders in Pec on May 11.
War crimes investigators say it will take a high-level defector to unravel the complex and closely held secrets of JSO operations and expose its links to Milosevic.
"They changed their names like shirts," Anastasijevic says of the JSO. "They had sets of different identity papers, they were sometimes in uniforms of different unitspolice, army, civilians. Most of their commanders were only known by nickname. They were never photographed."
Anastasijevic says all evidence suggests the JSO operated under the direct control of Milosovic through his top advisors, Rade Markovic and Nikola Sainovic. "This unit and Simatovic knew very well where their loyalties were. It would almost impossible to launch a large-scale operation without Milosevic's approval. He might not have known the details, but he'd have known it was going on."
Despite the JSO's fealty to Milosevic for nearly ten years, it is widely believed that Ulemek and other commanders refused to suppress a public uprising that led to Milosevic's fall from power in October, 2000.
The JSO's indirect role in helping the opposition assume power in Yugoslavia fostered relations between Ulemek and members of Yugoslavia's new leadership, according to press reports. That has led to charges by Serbian human rights groups that politicians such as Zoran Djindjic are actively collaborating with Milosevic's one-time henchmen.
Indeed, Milosevic's secret police chief, Rade Markovic, is still in office despite calls for his dismissal.
Anastasijevic says there may be moves to sack Markovic and disband the JSO after Serbia's newly-elected government takes office. "There is no reason for this unit to exist. In most countries, a unit of this kind would not be allowed to exist. ... The whole Serbian security structure has to be deconstructed and then reconstructed. I think reform is an understatement."
Top of page