Serbeze HAXHIAJ | BIRN, Krivenik

It was midday on March 29, 2001 when the Associated Press news agency team in Kosovo’s capital Pristina received information that gunshots had been heard near the border with North Macedonia.

Kerem Lawton, a 30-year-old British producer for AP Television News, and Sylejman Kllokoqi, a camera operator for the agency, decided to head for Krivenik, a village three kilometres away from the border on the Kosovo side.

“When we arrived in Krivenik, we saw some US troop vehicles leaving the place. Local residents told us that an hour earlier, a mortar hit the centre of the village,” Kllokoqi told BIRN.

The incident happened amid an armed conflict between North Macedonian government troops and ethnic Albanian rebels of the National Liberation Army guerrilla force, which erupted in January and would continue for several months before a peace deal was signed later in 2001.

“Kerem was parking while I started to walk to the place hit by a mortar,” Kllokoqi continued. “Suddenly I heard a huge explosion hit the car and I saw a plume of smoke.”

A barrage of mortar shells had been fired at the village. Kllokoqi, who was uninjured, immediately started calling out for his colleague.

“I started shouting ‘Kerem! Kerem!’ Then I saw him in the car covered in blood. He was unconscious. I took him in my arms, asking for help, for a car to send him to the hospital,” he recalled.

“A US peacekeepers’ patrol gave Kerem first aid. He was then taken by road, first to a local clinic and then to Camp Bondsteel, the US military base in Kosovo, but he died before arrival with multiple wounds,” Kllokoqi explained.

Three local residents who were close to the vehicle – Ilaz Thaci, Raif Thaci and Baki Krasniqi – were also fatally hit, and 16 other people were wounded by the shelling.

‘They killed a journalist and no one investigated’

More than two decades later, confusion remains about who fired the shells. Neither side has admitted responsibility, and investigations have failed to provide answers.

The North Macedonian government said at the time of Lawton’s death that there was “not the remotest possibility” that its soldiers were responsible for firing mortars across the border into Kosovo.

Lawton’s wife at the time of his death, Elida Ramadani, who was also an AP journalist and was eight months pregnant, told BIRN that despite her attempts to find out more, she didn’t receive any explanation of what happened.

“Personally I wrote to NATO HQ in Brussels and to the command of the American troops [KFOR Regional Command East], and also to the UN mission in Kosovo, but I didn’t get any reply,” she said.

Kllokoqi’s eyes filled with tears when he remembers his last working day with Lawton. “He was very devoted to gathering the stories. He was full of passion, the epitome of a professional and brave guy,” he recalled.

“At that time, AP applied a kind of rotation system for sending producers into Kosovo, and Kerem came every two months. He was an enthusiastic reporter, writing stories with a fine eye for colour and the human angle,” he added.

In the village of Krivenik, families of those who were killed and other local residents believe that the shells were fired by the North Macedonian Army because it thought they were supporters and suppliers of the Albanian rebel guerrillas.

Safet Thaci, whose uncle Ilaz Thaci, a 33-year-old teacher, was killed close to Lawton’s car, said that no one was interested in investigating case.

“At midday on March 29, about an hour before the arrival of the journalists, a mortar launched from the hill hit a place very close to the mosque and school.  Our house is close to the school and my uncle Ilaz, as a teacher, decided to evacuate children from the classroom,” Thaci told BIRN.

“The attacks came from the hill. Many of us believe that they came from the Macedonian Army because they suspected that we were supporting the Albanian guerrillas who were fighting for Albanian rights in Macedonia. But all the same, nothing is clear yet,” he said.

He says that it was surprising to the entire village why the authorities did not seem to be interested in the death of a British reporter. “They killed a journalist and no one investigated the case. For us, it was more than absurd,” Thaci said.

Both the North Macedonian Army and the ethnic Albanian rebels denied that they were responsible for the attack. Commander Sokoli, an ethnic Albanian rebel commander, said the insurgents lacked the military capability to strike the village from their positions in North Macedonia.

The office of North Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski said in a statement the day after the shelling that his country’s forces were about four miles from the village and the maximum range of their mortars was about two-and-a-half miles.

NATO launched a probe, but there was no investigation by the authorities in Kosovo or North Macedonia, said Lawton’s father John, who had worked as a foreign correspondent himself, for United Press International.

“The British government did not ask the authorities in Kosovo and Macedonia to investigate Kerem’s killing. The only investigation that I know of was that carried out by NATO, which reached no conclusion,” John Lawton told BIRN.

He has claimed that the NATO report was a “whitewash” aimed at covering up his son’s killing because North Macedonia was applying for membership of the Western military alliance at the time.

Kllokoqi also expressed unease about the NATO probe: “It was strange that nobody contacted me and interviewed me about the case. I have never learned if it was a real investigation,” he said.

A British coroner’s review of the case concluded in 2005 that it appeared that the shells that killed Lawton came “from an area where Macedonian troops were active”, but assigned no blame for his death, AP reported.

The coroner said that she was “unable to label the death as a war crime as the family had wanted”, according to the AP report.

BIRN contacted North Macedonia’s foreign ministry for a comment. It replied that it was still looking into Lawton’s death, but gave no further details.

The North Macedonian defence ministry and justice ministry were also contacted, but provided no information.