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Operations, September 1993 - February 1994

Written 08.12.2009. 11:43
The Muslim offensive in central Bosnia continued through the fall of 1993 into the winter of 1994. The increasingly desperate HVO defenders barely managed to stave off each successive ABiH assault. The February 23, 1994, cease-fire associated with the Washington agreements and the end of open warfare between Muslims and Croats in central Bosnia came just in time: the HVO defenders were exhausted, and a final Muslim triumph was perhaps only weeks or even days away.

Continuation of the ABiH Offensive in the Vitez-Busovaca Area

In September, 1993, Muslim forces made yet another strong attempt to cut the main road through the Lasva Valley. The attack began on September 5 with an assault on the village of Zabilje from the direction of Brdo. The ABiH forces succeeded in entering the village, and the HVO subsequently reported that two HVO soldiers had been killed and nine wounded, and that fifteen to twenty civilians working in the fields had been taken prisoner. The British UNPROFOR battalion at Stari Bila reported a significant rise in the intensity of local exchanges of artillery, mortar, rocket-propelled grenade, heavy machine gun, and small-arms fire beginning at 8:30 A.M. in the vicinity of Brdo. The firing soon extended to Bukve, to Jardol in the afternoon, and on toward the main road north of Vitez. According to the UNPROFOR: "The immediate BIH objective in this area is to capture Zabilje; this will then ultimately allow their forces to push further south in order to cut the HVO MSR ...it is a BIH long term aim to divide the Novi Travnik/Vitez/Busovaca Croat enclave into a number of smaller isolated pockets."

The attack on Zabilje was mounted by elements of the ABiH 325th Mountain Brigade. Mensud Kelestura, the brigade commander. subsequently claimed he had twenty-two HVO bodies to exchange and stated that he would attack Stari Bila within ten days. The situation quieted down on September 6, but heavy firing on the ABiH positions on Bila Hill resumed around 1 P.M. on the seventh and continued into the night. On September 8, the HVO launched its own attack in the Stari Bila area. Elements of the Viteska Brigade, supported by the Vitezovi PPN, attacked Muslim positions in Grbavica in order to forestall the promised ABiH attack and prevent Muslim forces from advancing any farther toward the SPS explosives factory. By first seizing the high ground to either side of the village, including Grbavica (Bila) Hill, which dominated the area, the HVO forces skillfully ejected Muslim troops from the village itself. The BRITBAT reported both the successful HVO clearing attack on September 8 and the consequent HVO celebrating on Bila Hill the following day.

The ABiH launched another attack toward Vitez along the Preocica-Kruscica axis on September 18, their aim being to cut the Nova Bila-Busovaca road and divide the existing Croat enclave into two parts. After a quiet night in the Vitez area, ABiH artillery and mortars in the Bila area opened fire at about 1 A.M. on the eighteenth. Rounds fell on HVO positions west of Novi Travnik; in Novi Bila, Vitez, and Busovaca; and elsewhere along the line of contact in the Lasva Valley. The BRITBAT subsequently reported that the ABiH had launched a series of battalion-size assaults on HVO positions in the valley and had made a number of minor territorial gains, particularly in the area north of Kruscica toward Vitez. On September 19, the BRITBAT reported that the ABiH's main thrust seemed to be in the Kruscica and Krcevine areas, with signs of infantry attacks at about 1:10 P.M. in the area around Cifluk and Brankovac.

The ABiH attacks continued on September 20, focusing on the Ahmici area along the Sivrino Selo-Pirici-Ahmici-Kratine line of contact in the north, and the area between Kruscica and Vitez in the south as the Muslims advanced perhaps a kilometer in twenty- four hours. The fighting in the north shifted to the Santici area the following day, while the main battle continued along the line of contact established previously in the area south of Vitez. After four days of heavy fighting, the ABiH offensive in the Vitez area petered out without gaining its principal objectives.

On September 23, ABiH forces launched a large-scale artillery and infantry attack in the Busovaca area, killing five HVO troops, including a commander. In addition, about fifteen 120-mm mortar rounds landed in the town of Busovaca, seriously injuring several civilians. Near the end of the month, on September 27, the ABiH again tried to cut the road in the Vitez area by advancing south from Sivrino Selo and north from Rijeka at the point where the Croat enclave was at its narrowest. That same day, the Croat hospital in Vitez received three direct hits by ABiH mortars. Two persons were killed. The Vitez hospital was hit by Muslim shells again on September 28 as fighting continued in the afternoon in the villages north of town on a general line running from Jardol to Nadioci. The UNPROFOR reported the next day that Fikret Cuskic's 17th Krajina Mountain Brigade had established its headquarters in the village of Kruscica. A BRITBAT officer visiting the office of Ramiz Dugalic, the ABiH III Corps security officer, saw a map with arrows indicating the severing of the Vitez-Busovaca enclave in the Sivrino Selo area.

The situation in the Lasva Valley remained relatively quiet throughout the month of October, but sustained fighting erupted again in early November. On November 5, the ABiH attacked laterally from Kruscica northwest toward the SPS factory, gaining control of Zbrdje and a settlement of weekend houses in the area southwest of Vitez. They established a front line extending from the weekend homes to Bijelijna and thus brought the SPS factory under direct fire for the first time since mid-April.

Just over a month later, on December 8, the ABiH mounted a two-pronged attack from Zaselje and Stari Vitez with the apparent objective of taking the SPS factory. The Muslims failed again, but they achieved greater success just two weeks later when the ABiH mounted another determined attack on Vitez along the Preocica-Sivrino Selo-Pirici axis toward Krizancevo Selo on December 22. The HVO defenders were surprised; Krizancevo Selo, just fifteen hundred meters from the UNPROFOR Dutch/Belgian Transport Battalion compound near Dubravica, was taken; and between sixty and a hundred HVO soldiers and Croat civilians were killed in the village.1 The operation was conducted by the 2d Battalion, 325th Mountain Brigade, under the personal supervision of Gen. Rasim Delic, the ABiH commander, who was present in the 2d Battalion command post during the attack. In view of the determined ABiH attempts to take Vitez and the SPS factory, it is not surprising that a proposed ABiH-HVO Christmas cease-fire fell through due to ABiH intransigence.2

The ABiH enclave in Stari Vitez remained a cancer in the breast of the HVO forces defending the Vitez- Busovaca enclave throughout the period. The Muslim forces in Stari Vitez were heavily armed and resupplied on occasion with the help of UN forces.3 Even women were mobilized and took an active part in the fighting, thereby giving up their status as noncombatants. The HVO closely invested the small but noisome enclave and frequently sought without success to carry it by assault, most notably on July 18. Yet the ABiH was equally unsuccessful in its efforts to relieve the enclave, principally due to the spirited HVO resistance.4

The ABiH attacks in the Vitez-Busovaca area continued into 1994. Filip Filipovic, the acting OZCB commander, refused to surrender a triangle of land north of Stari Vitez that would have permitted the ABiH to link up with the Muslim Territorial Defense forces in Stari Vitez and break the siege. The Muslims responded by resuming their offensive in the early morning hours on January 9, with the ABiH forces advancing in a pincer movement from the Krizancevo Selo area south toward Santici, and from Kruscica north toward the Lasva Valley road. The battle continued on January 10, and Muslim forces broke through the HVO defenses the next day. They quickly established a new line at Bukve Kuce, about a hundred meters from the OZCB headquarters in the Hotel Vitez. That same day, ABill soldiers placed a flag on a telephone pole opposite the gate of the UNPROFOR transport battalion compound in Santici. It was the "closest [the] BiH ever came to cutting the Vitez pocket in two." The attack did succeed in closing the southern exit from Vitez toward Busovaca, and during the three days of fighting some thirty-six Croats, both military and civilian, were killed, and a number were listed as missing.

The HVO counterattacked on January 24 and regained some of the ground lost earlier in the month. Meanwhile, Sir Martin Garrod, the head of the ECMM Regional Center in Zenica, noted in his end-of-tour report that the two large Muslim offensives launched on December 22, 1993, and January 9, 1994, with the aim of reducing the Vitez pocket, "turned out not to be as effective militarily as they appeared to be initially."

Even as negotiations to end the Muslim-Croat conflict began, fighting continued in the Vitez area. In early February, the ABiH regrouped and brought in reinforcements from Sarajevo and Zenica in preparation for another major assault to cut the Lasva Valley road at Santici. An ABiH attack toward Santici on February 8 failed, and the HVO counterattacked to widen the neck of the Vitez Pocket. On February 14, the HVO succeeded in removing the ABiH flag placed in Santici on January 11, and after almost two months of heavy fighting the lines in the Vitez Pocket were back where they had been before the first Muslim offensive in the area. The fighting in the Vitez region tapered off, then resumed briefly as both sides sought a final advantage immediately before the cease-fire pursuant to the peace accords signed in Zagreb on February 23 were to go into effect at noon on February 25.

Events in the Vares Area

In October and November, 1993, the focus of the Muslim-Croat conflict shifted to the mining (chrome, iron, and zinc) and metal-processing town of Vares, which lies in a narrow valley some twenty miles north of Sarajevo on the main road from Breza to Tuzla and was then just to the west of the Serb lines. Both the Muslim and Croat residents of Vares maintained relatively good relations with the Serbs, and there was a heavy traffic in smuggled persons and goods across the opposing lines east of town. Until October, the Muslims and Croats had coexisted warily in Vares. However, large numbers of Muslim refugees fleeing the fighting in northern and eastern Bosnia flooded the town, and in early October, the HVO took control. On October 22, ABiH forces seized the village of Kopljari in order to form a link with three Muslim villages in the area and open a Muslim-controlled corridor into the pocket.

Stupni Do

The small village of Stupni Do overlooked Vares and the road down the valley. In late October, 1993, it was defended by a Muslim Territorial Defense unit commanded by Avdo Zubaca and consisting of about fifty men with thirty rifles and a 60-mm mortar. When a two-hundred-man HVO unit from Kiseljak and Kakanj arrived in Vares on October 21, the local Muslim War Presidency ordered the evacuation of Stupni Do's civilian population, but most of the residents chose not to leave. The following day, a force of masked uniformed HVO troops, subsequently identified as the group recently arrived from Kiseljak and Kakanj, entered the village and assaulted the ABiH soldiers and Muslim civilians still there. Both UNPROFOR forces and ECMM monitors were unable to enter the village for three days to verify the claims of untoward events. On October 27, elements of the UNPROFOR Nordic Battalion (NORDBAT) finally obtained access to Stupni Do and found twenty bodies by the end of day. The ABiH subsequently claimed that the HVO attackers massacred eighty or more of Stupni Do's 260 Muslim inhabitants. Ivica Rajic, commander of the OZCB's 2d Operative Group, claimed responsibility for the attack, and Kresimir Bozic, the Bobovac Brigade commander, claimed there had been a total of forty dead for both sides, most of whom were soldiers. "UN sources" speculated that the attack was in retaliation for the Muslim capture of Kopljari, a nearby Croat village, the week before, but there appears to be another plausible explanation for the attack on Stupni Do.

The village indeed did have some tactical importance: it commanded the southern end of the road into Vares from higher ground. However, it was also the gateway to BSA-controlled territory to the east, which made it a lucrative center for smuggling and black-market activities by both Muslim and Croat entrepreneurs. In fact, a small clearing above the village was reputed to be a thriving marketplace at which all sorts of goods-from cigarettes to automobiles to weapons-could be obtained for a price on "market day." The former commander of Muslim Territorial Defense forces in Vares, Ekrem Mahmutovic, when asked why the Stupni Do massacre occurred, noted that the Muslim residents of Stupni Do had become quite well-to-do from their black-market dealings, although they had to pay a percentage to the HVO, and when the Croats demanded a substantially higher cut in early October, the Stupni Do residents refused. The subsequent attack on the village was not an" official" HVO action, but was instead mounted by HVO personnel like Ivica Rajic, who were deeply involved in black-market operations, and was intended to "teach the Muslims in Stupni Do a lesson." The attack thus was not a sanctioned HVO combat activity; was perpetrated by individuals for personal reasons under the cover of their official HVO positions and using HVO resources; and was essentially a gang fight among criminals. This explanation of the events at Stupni Do on October 22, 1993, was generally accepted at the time by most officials-who agreed that outsiders from Kiseljak and Kakanj were the perpetrators. Sir Martin Garrod, the head of the ECMM Regional Center Zenica, noted: "It is likely that the decision to mount the operation was taken at fairly low level, and it is possible that the massacre was triggered by the refusal of the Muslims in Stupni Do, so the story goes, to pay more to the local HVO from their profits from smuggling operations in the area."

Garrod also noted that when he asked HVO political leader Dario Kordic about the Stupni Do matter, Kordic was surprised and had to call General Petkovic in Mostar to find out what had happened. According to Garrod, Petkovic told Kordic "nothing bad had happened," only that a lot of houses had been burned and a lot of soldiers "in and out of uniform" had been killed, while most of the civilians "had moved out and were now in Vares." Although "nothing bad had happened," the key players in the event were quickly replaced by HVO authorities in Mostar. Kresimir Bozic replaced Emil Harah as commander of the Bobovac Brigade on October 25, and General Petkovic and Mate Boban removed Ivica Rajic from his position in mid-November.

Criminal Behavior

There is little doubt that Ivica Rajic was engaged in criminal activities, the pursuit of which fell far outside his functions as a military commander in the HVO. It is clear that he used HVO military resources, including troops under his command, to pursue his criminal activities, which were in no way apart of his officia1 HVO duties. Rajic's involvement in the Stupni Do massacre raises a question about the Muslim-Croat conflict in central Bosnia that needs to be emphasized: to what degree did common criminals playa role in events? The whole Stupni Do episode reeks of being a dispute between black-marketeers. Moreover, many, if not most, of the convoy holdups on Route DIAMOND between Gornji Vakuf and Novi Travnik seem to have been undertaken by renegade gangs (both Croat and Muslim) rather than masterminded by HVO officials, military or civilian, acting in their official capacity. Brigadier Ivica Zeko, the former OZCB intelligence officer, noted that the fighting in the lower Kiseljak area (for example, around Tulica) involved Muslims trying to cut the HVO off from doing business with the Serbs, as well as trying to seize the important Kiseljak-Tarcin corridor.

On April 13, 1994, ECMM Team V3 met with Father Bozo, the Franciscan Caritas representative in Kiseljak, who talked about the influence of the Bosnian Croat gangs that had emerged as a dominant force in the Kiseljak area. The two major gangs were controlled by Ivica Rajic and were known as the "Apostles" and the "Maturice." The Apostles came to the Kiseljak area after the ABiH attack there in June, 1993. They were led by a man known as "Ljoljo" had about three hundred men in their ranks, and lived in private houses in Duri Topole. The Maturice were from the Travnik and Kiseljak areas and lived in Lepenica. These gangs were equipped as soldiers but were not employed on the front lines. Instead they were employed by Rajic to promote his criminal activities (such as in Stupni Do). Due to Rajic's influ-ence and control over the HVO civil and military authorities in the Kiseljak area, the gangs were able to act as they wished.

Increases in criminal activity are a normal accompaniment of wartime conditions, and even well-disciplined armed forces, such as those of the United States, Great Britain, and other NATO nations, have great difficulty suppressing criminal activity, particularly black-marketeering, among their own troops. The HVO had far fewer reliable resources at its command for suppressing crime in the midst of a life-or-death struggle against the BSA and the ABiH. It thus is not surprising that independent criminal activity flourished in such isolated and autonomous areas as the Kiseljak enclave. Neither the HVO civilian authorities nor the HVO military authorities had the wherewithal to prevent such activity effectively, and it surpasses the bounds of both logic and fairness to indict them for not doing so.

The Fall of Vares

The Stupni Do affair provided the ABiH with an excuse to clean out the HVO pocket around Vares, although the Muslims scarcely needed an excuse and had been planning the operation for some time.5 On November 2, 1993, the ECMM Coordinating Center in Travnik reported that the streets of Vares were deserted, the ABiH II Corps had already begun its attack on Vares from the north, and "the VARES pocket is a military and humanitarian powder keg. The HVO soldiers appeared nervous to the point of near panic...At the moment, the BIH appear very much in control."

On November 3, ECMM Team V4 reported that HVO forces had abandoned Vares and were moving in the direction of Dastansko, a village north-east of Vares and one kilometer west of the BSA's front line. All Muslim detainees had been released, and the Bobovac Brigade's headquarters set on fire. In the confusion caused by the ABiH advance, Croat soldiers and civilians fled south toward Kiseljak. Some five thousand refugees actually reached the Kiseljak municipality. The Muslim troops entering Vares, particularly those in the 7th Muslim Motorized Brigade, ran amok in an orgy of looting and wanton destruction. By November 4, the ABiH had full control of Vares and had achieved a major strategic goal by linking the ABiH II, III, IV, and VI Corps, giving it the ability to move by road from Tuzla to Gornji Vakuf without passing through any HVO pockets.

The Situation at the End of 1993

The fighting died down following the ABiH assault on Vares, except around Vitez, as both sides sought to conserve their strength, survive the winter, and prepare for renewed fighting in the spring of 1994. Military historian Edgar O'Ballance noted that December, 1993, was "a month of gloom and despondency in Bosnia, as factional leaders rigidly refused to come to any common agreement on its future..hope was at a low ebb and despair was high. ..[and] as military operations reached a stalemate sections of defensive trenches on a First-World-War pattern began to appear, symbolic of determination to prevent the enemy from seizing another foot of terrain."

Both sides were near exhaustion, but the HVO forces in central Bosnia were in a particularly perilous position, having lost a considerable amount of territory and unable to replace their losses in men and material. From the HVO's perspective, there was a very real danger that the ABiH was about to realize its objective of devouring the remaining small, isolated Croat enclaves around Zepce, Kiseljak, and Vitez-Busovaca. The HVO leaders were somewhat disappointed in the support they were receiving from their compatriots in Herzegovina, who appeared to be more concerned with establishing the Croatian Republic of Herceg-Bosna than with the very real threat to the continued existence of the Bosnian Croat enclaves in central Bosnia. Although they were desperate for peace, they were not ready for peace at any price. Zoran Maric, the mayor of Busovaca, told Sir Martin Garrod on December 30, 1993, that if the Muslims continued their offensive, the Bosnian Croats would have no alternative but to force two corridors for survival from Novi Travnik to Gornji Vakuf and from Kiseljak to Busovaca, whether by political or military means.

______________________

1 Wiloiams, "Balkan Winter," Dec. 22, 1993. Estimates of the Croat casualties, many of whom are believed to have been massacred after surrendering, vary widely. Colonel Williams put the HVO casualties at 60-70. Major General Filip Filipovic put them at 100 (Kordic-Cerkez trial testimony, Apr. 11, 2000). Dr. Miroslav Tudjman, director of the Croatian Information Service (HIS) put the total HVO and civilian casualties at Krizancevo Selo and nearby Buhine Kuce at 80 (see Miroslav Tudjman to Franjo Tudjman, no. 716-2412-E-03/94-052). See also Zeko, Blaskic trial testimony, Sept. 11, 1998. As a result of the disaster at Krizancevo Selo, Colonel Blaskic relieved Mario Cerkez as commander of the Viteska Brigade, and "kicked him upstairs" by making him deputy commander of the Vitez Military District.
2 Willians, "Balkan Winter," Dec 23-24, 1993. Colonel Williams reported that Rasim Delic, the ABiH commander, remarked that a cease-fire was impossible because there was "too much unfinished business in Central Bosnia."
3 Alagic and others, Ratna Sjecanja, 28. Alagic wrote "Through connections in the UN, we succeeded in getting some means [weapons] into Stari Vitez, so that they could defend themselves."
4 Mehmed Alagic claimed in his memoir that ABiH leaders feared the Muslim defenders of Stari Vitez would be massacred if the HVO took the enclave. Nevertheless, they decided to not succor the Muslim garrison there lest such action impede the ABiH’s receipt of supplies from Croatia (Ratna Sjecanja, 26, 28).
5 According to Garrod, on November 6, 1993, Jozo Maric, the mayor of Grude, told Philip Watkins, head of the ECMM Coordinating Center at Mostar, "the massacre was the excuse the ABiH wanted, and the coordinated attack by the 2d and 3d ABiH Corps on Vares proved they were prepared." Garrod added: "this certainly wouyld accord with my assessment of what transpired, and appears to be a shift of the previous HVO position" (see Sir Martin Garrod, witness statement, Feb. 17-19, 1998, 10 KC OTP Vares binder. Mehmed Alagic signed the order for the Vares offensive (See Alagic et a;., Ratna Sjecanja, 31).

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