Even as the Muslim-Croat battles raged around Travnik and Novi Travnik, the ABiH intensified its efforts to sweep up the smaller and weaker HVO positions on the periphery of the Operative Zone Central Bosnia area of operations. On June 14, the ABiH overran HVO forces in the Kakanj area, and the survivors of the Kotromanic Brigade as well as some thirteen thousand to fifteen thousand Croat civilian refugees filtered southward to the Kiseljak area or north to Vares.1 The HVO outposts south of Novi Travnik fell in late June and early July: Ravno Rostovo on June 24 and Rat and Sebesic in July. Between July 19 and 23, the ABiH attacked the HVO forces in and around Bugojno, seized control of the town, and killed or captured most of the fifteen-hundred-man HVO Eugen Kvaternik Brigade, which was defending the town. The prisoners fiom the Kvaternik Brigade, as well as the Croat civilians in the Bugojno area were subjected to horrible mistreatment at the hands of the victorious ABiH troops.
Although the major ABiH assault was launched in April, the struggle for the key Vitez-Busovaca area continued with varying degrees of intensity right up to the signing of the Washington agreements in March, 1994. The fighting was nearly continuous and was marked by large ABiH attacks almost every month. Sniping and artillery/mortar exchanges were routine, and the Croat enclave within the Lasva Valley continued to be the locus of heavy fighting. Although the HVO was able to prevent a major ABiH victory, the cumulative effect of casualties, the exhaustion of HVO personnel, the consumption of supplies and equipment without replacement, and the gradual loss of ground significantly reduced the HVO's capacity to resist as time went on.
In May, 1993, the ABiH succeeded in taking the Gradina heights between the villages of Loncari and Putis, and most of the critical Kuber and Kula positions fell to the ABiH in June. In July, the 17th Krajina Mountain Brigade launched yet another unsuccessful attack on Vitez. At a press conference on August 3, HVO military and civilian authorities addressed the serious situation facing the Croat community in central Bosnia, noting the continuing Muslim propaganda campaign that accompanied the shelling of Croat population centers and assaults on HVO positions. In mid-August an ABiH mortar round landed in the center of Vitez, injuring two adults and seven children, four of them seriously.
Kiseljak area was cut off from the Croat enclave in the Lasva Valley (including Travnik, Novi Travnik, Vitez, and Busovaca) in late January, 1993, when the ABiH seized Kacuni. Thereafter, ground communication between Vitez-Busovaca area and the Kiseljak area was very difficult, and HVO forces in the Kiseljak enclave operated almost independently. Until the summer of 1993, most of the Muslim-Croat fighting in the Kiseljak area occured in the north, particularly in the Gomionica area in April. After an abortive attempt to force open a line of communication at the eastern end of the enclave from Ran Ploca to Tarcin in the south, the ABiH started attacking HVO forces in the Kiseljak area from the south, driving toward Fojnica and Kresevo in the west and toward Ran Ploca in the east. Had ABiH offensives in the Kiseljak area succeeded, which they did in part, Muslims would have linked the II, III, and VII Corps to the north with the I, IV, and VI Corps to the south, saving about a hundred kilometers, over the Zenica-NoviTravnik-Gornji Vakuf route.
The village of Ran Ploca controlled the upper end of the potential route south via Tulica-Zabrde-Toplica to connect with the road from Kresevo to Tarcin. It also controlled the eastern terminus of the Busovaca-Kiseljak-Sarajevo road and the rear of the HVO positions facing the Serbs surrounding Sarajevo. In August, 1992, checkpoints were set up, and some incidents occurred in the area of Ran Ploca and the nearby village of Duhri. The HVO disarmed the Muslims in the Ran Ploca-Duhri area but later returned their weapons (on the orders of Colonel Blaskic) so they could defend themselves against the Serbs. The Muslims in Duhri again surrendered their weapons to the HVO on April 22-23, 1993, following the fighting around Gomionica, but the Muslims in Ran Ploca refused to do so. Fighting broke out at 10 A.M. on May 20, when the ABiH forces in the area tried to block the road. After a three-day battle, HVO forces succeeded in pushing the Muslims back to Koroska and Muresc toward Visoko. During the fighting around Ran Ploca, the ABiH attempted to send reinforcements from Visoko, but they arrived too late. Most of the ABiH troops fled at the end of e battle, leaving behind those Muslim civilians who had refused to leave (or were ordered not to by the ABiH) earlier. The HVO lost four men KIA and ten WIA during the fighting, which pitted one HVO company against out two hundred well-armed ABiH troops. It should be noted that the battle did not start until the Muslims rejected the HVO forces' demand that they surrender their weapons and thus avoid a fight. Ran Ploca was yet another instance in which the HVO purposefully left open an escape route for civilians.
Gomionica was the focal point of the Muslim-Croat fighting in the Kiseljak area in Januarv and April, 1993. From May 23-25, HVO forces finally managed to clean out the Gomionica pocket and relieve the threat to the key Fojnica intersection. The Muslims subsequently evacuated the entire salient and HVO forces pushed them back toward Visoko, stopping only at the Kiseljak Opcina boundary. Even so, the ABiH returned to the area on July 5 and, under cover of other offensive operations in the Kiseljak area, made three assaults (at 4 A.M., between 8-9 A.M., and at 5 P.M.). The attacks were unsuccessful, but HVO casualties were high: thirteen KlA and fifty WIA.
At the end of May and beginning of June, the conflict in the Kiseljak region shifted to the south. It continued to rage there until the Washington agreements were signed in March, 1994. The ABiH formed a line against the HVO in the vicinity of Toplica north of Tarcin manned by elements of the ABiH 9th Mountain Brigade supported by four tanks. The objective was to secure a north-south line of communication from Ran Ploca to Tarcin, west of the line against the BSA surrounding Sarajevo, and to cut the HVO off from the BSA. The village of Tulica (in the Kiseljak Opcina) subsequently became a focal point of the ABiH offensive from the south.
Tulica sits in a narrow corridor astride the potential ABiH route from Tarcin to Ran Ploca. On June 16, the ABiH attacked the Serbs surrounding Sarajevo from the west with some success, but the Serbs reinforced with tanks and pushed back, and the HVO moved into the former Muslim positions to the east of Tulica. By the early summer of 1993, Tulica had become a Muslim enclave immediately behind the HVO lines facing the BSA ringing Sarajevo, and for that reason constituted a significant military threat to the Croats, who were obliged to take the village in order to link their lines. In his testimony in the Blaskic case, Brigadier Ivica Zeko stated that the fighting in the lower Kiseljak area (around Tulica, for example) 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. The HVO took Tulica on June 26 and subsequently repelled five major Muslim attacks on the position, losing twenty-five HVO soldiers KIA on the front by the time the Washington agreements were signed. It was a difficult position to defend, and the Muslims employed special operations forces (the "Black Swans" of the 17th Krajina Mountain Brigade) against the HVO position. Eight persons, apparently Muslims soldiers, appear to have been executed in Tulica after the HVO took the village. Their identity and the exact circumstances of their deaths are unknown. Two days after Tulica fell to the HVO, Muslims attacked the village of Bojakovic, killing three women, a fourteen-year-old girl, and a number of old people.
Having been stymied in their attempt to force a passage through the Kiseljak area along the Tarcin-Toplica-Tulica-Ran Ploca axis, the ABiH refocused their attacks to the west toward Kresevo and Fojnica. The HVO forces defending in the Fojnica-Kresevo area included the Ban Josip Jelacic Brigade's 2d and 3d Battalions. The brigade, commanded by Ivica Rajic, had a total strength of about twenty-five hundred men. The brigade's 1st Battalion was responsible for the northern front toward Visoko. The 2d Battallion, commanded by Ivo Kulis, a former JNA infantry captain, held the eastern (Kresevo) sector of the southern front up to Crnice. The 3d Battalion, commanded by the newly assigned Branko Stanic, held the western and northern (Otigosce-Fojnica) sector up to the Busovaca-Kiseljak road with some seven hundred to 950 men.
The ABiH task force of six thousand to eight thousand men involved in the offensive on the Kiseljak enclave from the south included elements of both the III and VI Corps and was commanded by Dragan Andric, a VI Corps officer. As of August 21, 1993, the task force included the local Territorial Defense units and the 310th Mountain Brigade from the Fojnica area (normally assigned to OG Istok); elements of the 317th Mountain Brigade from Bugojno; the 17th Krajina Mountain Brigade, the 7th Muslim Motorized Brigade, and the 9th Mountain Brigade from Pazaric (VI Corps); and the 4th Motorized Brigade from Sarajevo (I Corps).
The fighting in the Fojnica area began on July 2, shortly after the visit of Gen. Philippe Morillon, the UN commander in Bosnia-Herzegovina, who promised to maintain the town as a peaceful oasis. Fojnica fell to the ABiH on July 10, and the Croats were chased out and went over the mountains to Visnica, where they occupied empty Muslim houses. In the-course of the Muslim attack on Fojnica, the ABiH burned part of the HVO war hospital as well as the Hotel Reumal, and the mental hospital was damaged by attacks and snipers from Muslim positions on Zvjezdice opposite the Drin and the Mal Ploca Heights opposite Bakovici.
Before the conflict began in the Fojnica area on July 2, 41 percent of the town's population was Croat (about sixty-six hundred people), but the ECMM reported in October that the town was almost entirely Muslim, with only 150 Croats remaining-and they were preparing to leave because the Muslims would not provide them with food. Following Fojnica's fall, Croat villages in the area were thoroughly cleansed by the Muslims. On October 3, an ECMM team visited the former Croat village of Tjesilo, which had been completely destroyed, giving, according to the ECMM observer, "an impression of total hate and the wish to completely erase traces of former inhabitants."2
At the beginning of August, the ABiH attempted once more to force the HVO enclave from the northeast in the vicinity of the villages of Han Ploca, Duhri, and Lepenica by cutting across the Lepenica Valley. At the same time, they launched an attack along the Ostja-Kokoska line with the objective of separating the HVO from the BSA in that area. These attacks, too, were repelled. On August 11, the ABiH took Bakovici, but another ABiH attack by elements of the 7th Muslim Motorized, the 17th Krajina Mountain, and the 317th Mountain Brigades lasting from August 21-26 was repelled. The ABiH offensive in the Kiseljak region continued into September with the HVO slowly losing ground in some places and holding on in others.
Having successfully attacked and "cleansed" the HVO troops and Bosnian Croat civilians from Travnik and most of the Novi Travnik area in early June 1993, the Muslim-led ABiH turned its attention northward hoping to catch the isolated Bosnian Croat community in the Tesanj-Maglaj salient off guard. On June 24, the ABiH III Corps launched an attack on the town of Zepce and other HVO positions at the base of the salient.3 The Muslim assessment of the weakness of the Croat defenders of Zepce proved to be ill founded, however, and their attack met stiff resistance and ultimately failed. The Bosnian Croat enclaves in the Tesanj-Maglaj salient thus survived until the signing of the Washington agreements in March, 1994.
The town of Zepce lies on the north (left) bank of the River Bosna about forty-five kilometers northeast of Zenica and some seventy kilometers northwest of Sarajevo. Until the municipal boundaries in the area were gerrymandered by the Communist government in 1953, Zepce's population was two-thirds ethnic Croat. The 1991 census counted 22,966 inhabitants in the municipality of Zepce, of whom 10,820 were Muslim. In the town itself, the population in 1991 totaled 5,571, of whom 3,367 were Muslim. The major road passing through Zepce from Zenica (to the southwest) to Doboj (to the northeast) was an important line of communication for both the ABiH and HVO forces manning the lines against the Bosnian Serb Army in the Tesanj-Maglaj salient inasmuch as it was the only resupply route available in the area.
The Serbian-JNA attack on the Republic of Croatia in 1991 caused great anxiety amongst Bosnian Croat residents in the Zepce area, but the Muslim- led government in Sarajevo appeared to ignore the situation. In the face of the RBiH government's inactivity, the Bosnian Croats in Zepce began organizing for defense in May, 1991, and the HVO was formed there on April 8, 1992. Muslim citizens in the Zepce area were invited to participate with the HVO in efforts to form a joint defense against the Serbs, but they persistently refused to cooperate. The local Muslim leaders seemed willing enough, but ABiH forces in the Zepce area were controlled by much more radical elements from Zenica. The HVO subsequently assumed the bulk of the defense against BSA attacks in 1992, including taking over the defense of Maglaj when Muslim authorities asked them to do so.
Although relations between the two organizations were never cordial, the ABiH refrained from direct attacks on the HVO in the Zepce area until the summer of 1992 primarily because it was the mainstay of the common defense against the BSA in the region. However, Muslim attitudes toward their Croat neighbors had hardened by that summer. The first real clash between the two communities in Zepce occurred in September, when Muslim troops were sent to take down a Croat flag in the town while all of the HVO soldiers were on the front lines in Maglaj. The Muslims were disarmed by Croat reserve police officers. The worst that could be said about HVO forces in Zepce is that they held loud training exercises on Fridays and took control of several buildings in the town, including the Cultural Center, which housed the HVO 111xp Brigade's headquarters, and the Hotel Balkans, which became the HVO military police headquarters after the 111xp Brigade HQ moved into the Cultural Center. There was little communication or cooperation between the Muslim and Croat communities in Zepce by the fall of 1992.
When the ABiH began making probing attacks in the Lasva Valley in January, 1993, the HVO started entrenching in Zepce and on the heights of Visoka Rudia and Suhi Kriz, positions that commanded the Muslim villages of Ozimica and Golubinja. The entrenchment activity intensified in early June, and by June 24, the Croat residents of predominantly Muslim villages in the Zepce area had been evacuated to predominantly Croat villages. This was done, of course, to ensure their safety in the event of a Muslim attack, which was expected momentarily.
The situation worsened in the spring of 1993 with the arrival of Refik Lendo to assume command of the ABiH's Operative Group "Bosna" in Zavidovici. Lendo, a radical Muslim from the Travnik area, began replacing the ABiH brigade commanders in the area with men more attuned to his views, the local commanders being altogether too cooperative with the HVO in his opinion.4 Meanwhile, Lendo ordered his subordinates to prepare for an offensive against the HVO in the Zepce-Zavidovici-Novi Seher area. Hoping to reduce tensions, HVO officials met with the commander of the ABiH 319th Mountain Brigade, but they were unsuccessful.
On April 18, the ABiH III Corps cleared HVO forces and many Bosnian Croat civilians from the municipality of Zenica and cut the road to Zepce, thereby isolating the HVO forces and Croat civilians in the Tesanj-Maglaj salient. Surrounded by hostile Muslim forces, the Croats in Zepce had only one option for communicating with the outside world: through territory held by the Bosnian Serbs. The HVO thus opened negotiations with the Serbs, who for their own reasons were willing to cooperate.5 The Bosnian Croats in Zepce were not eager to deal with the Serbs, but they had no other choice. A cease-fire between the Serbs and Croats in the Zepce area was announcedon June 14.
The UNPROFOR authorities were warned of the coming attack on several occasions. On June 23, BRlTBAT officers visited the Zepce and Zavidovici areas and met with Nikola Jozinovic, commander of the HVO 111xp Brigade, who-not for the first time-claimed that the ABiH was planning to attack HVO forces in the area. Jozinovic also claimed thatABiH troops were assembling for the offensive in two areas: elements of the 314th and 303d Mountain Brigades and the 7th Muslim Motorized Brigade in the villages of Begov Han and Zeljezno Polje, and elements of the 309th Mountain Brigade in the villages of Kamenica and Mitrovici. The BRITBAT subsequently confirmed the presence of 150 soldiers from the 309th Brigade in Kamenica and elements of the 303d and 314th Brigades southwest of Zepce, as well as a number of soldiers from the 306th Brigade in Cardak. After the fighting in Zepce started, BRITBAT authorities commented: "At present it is not clear who was the initiator of the fighting but the balance of probability would suggest that it was the BIH who were responsible. The presence of the 314th Bde soldiers, normally based in Zenica, the number of 309th Bde soldiers (Kakanj) observed on 23 June in Kamenica and the locally dominant position of the BIH all suggest this."6
The HVO and ABiH forces normally stationed in the Zepce area were generally balanced. The HVO 3d Operative Group, commanded by Ivo Lozancic from his headquarters in Zepce, consisted of the 110th Brigade, commanded by Nikola Antunovic, at Usora and the 111xp Brigade, commanded by Nikola Jozinovic, at Zepce. The total number of HVO troops in the region was approximately seven thousand, with about two thousand of them in the immediate Zepce area. In addition to being heavily outnumbered by the Muslims, the HVO forces had three problems: their territory was not contiguous; they had no centralized logistics system; and they lacked adequate communications. Nevertheless, the HVO forces were somewhat better armed than the Muslims and held the bulk of the lines against the BSA, with resulting heavy casualties.7
Zepce became part of the ABiH III Corps in February, 1993, and was assigned to Refik Lendo's OG Bosna, headquartered in Zavidovici. The two ABiH brigades native to the area were Galib Dervisic's 319th Mountain Brigade in Zepce, and Ismet Mamagic's 318th Mountain Brigade in Zavidovici. Each brigade had some twenty-five hundred to three thousand men, but Muslim witnesses reported that most were deployed on the front lines and only about two hundred were in Zepce.
Regular ABiH forces in the Zepce area were augmented by at least two of Narcis Drocic's Green Beret platoons with thirty men each. There were also three Muslim Territorial Defense companies in Zepce, the members of which manned ABiH checkpoints in the town. Like the HVO, the ABiH forces native to the Zepce-Zavidovici area existed in isolated pockets, were poorly coordinated, and lacked good logistical support.
In order to attack Zepce and Zavidovici, the ABiH was obliged to move additional forces into the area. The headquarters of British forces in Bosnia- Herzegovina subsequently identified the ABiH brigades operating in the Tesanj-Maglaj salient as of June 28, 1993, as elements of the 30lst Mecha- nized Brigade, 303d and 314th Mountain Brigades, and 7th Muslim Motorized Brigade from Zenica; the 309th Mountain Brigade from Kakanj; the 318th Mountain Brigade from Zavidovici; the 319th Mountain Brigade from Zepce; and the 20lst Mountain Brigade from Maglaj. The introduction of ABiH forces from outside the Zepce-Zavidovici area was a clear indication of the ABiH III Corps commander's aggressive intent, the more so in that several of the "outside" units were known to have been used previously for assault purposes in the Lasva Valley (to wit, the 301st, 303d, 309th, and 7th Muslim Brigades). The sudden appearance of these offensive forces in the Zepce area was foreshadowed by Gen. Stjepan Siber of the ABiH General Headquarters attempting to negotiate with Ivo Lozancic of the HVO 3d OG on May 30 to allow a 160-man mobile ABiH unit to enter Zepce. Lozancic refused to permit the stationing of the entire unit in Zepce, and half the detachment subsequently went to Begov Han, fourteen kilometers from Zepce, while the remainder stayed at the Nova Trgovina warehouses on the eastern edge of the town.
Saint Ivo's Day-June 24, 1993-was a Croat holiday, and most of the Bosnian Croats in Zepce were preparing to go to mass when the blow forecast by Ivo Lozancic was struck without warning.8 In fact, the first burst of fighting occurred on the evening of June 23, when mujahideen advanced from Zeljezno Polje on the Croat village of Dolubina, The following morning, elements of five Muslim brigades-approximately 12,500 men-advancing in two columns from the southwest (Zenica) and the southeast (Kakanj) opened the main attack north of Brezovo Polje and soon surrounded Zepce. The Muslim forces occupied the high ground west, south, and east of Zepce, and over the next few days the Croat residents of the Muslim-dominated area on the south bank of the Bosna River fled to Croat-held areas. In Zepce itself, firing broke out at approximately 9:15 A.M. as ABiH mortars and artillery opened up on the town and Muslim Green Berets surrounded the HVO military police headquarters in the Hotel Balkans.
On June 25, and again on June 26, the BRITBAT reported that HVO sources were claiming that Zepce had been attacked by the ABiH from the direction of Zeljezno Polje (that is, from the direction of Zenica) and that the fighting in the area had been sparked by the HVO's refusal to surrender in Novi Seher. Inasmuch as the town was surrounded and the Muslims were firing into it from positions on the heights, the HVO forces thought it was necessary to clear the town. The resulting fight lasted six days and was very bitter, with both sides shelling their opponent's positions in the town. The HVO did, however, leave the pedestrian bridge over the Bosna clear for civilians to use to escape the fighting. Meanwhile, BRITBAT patrols reported fighting in the Zepce area at 9:30 A.M. on June 24, with smoke rising from the town and small-caliber mortar fire coming from the eastern end of the town. At 2 P.M., BRITBAT patrols reported that Zepce was under mortar and heavy machine-gun fire from the vicinity of the village of Ljubana, and that a number of buildings were on fire, including a large apartment complex that was totally engulfed in flames. The BRITBAT also reported that as of 6:30 P.M. there were obvious tensions on the route between Zenica and Zepce with the number of checkpoints having been doubled and the manning doubled as well.
On June 26, COMBRITFOR reported that the fighting in Zepce continued, with heavy mortar fire being directed into the town from ABiH positions near the village of Golubinja and elsewhere to the west. The HVO headquarters in town had been extensively damaged, a large number of buildings around it were on fire, and soldiers leaving the town claimed that bitter street fighting was taking place. On June 27, the BRITBAT reported that soldiers in the area stated that the HVO and ABiH each controlled 50 percent of Zepce and that the fighting was less intense than before. The BRITBAT also reported a conversation on June 27 with the deputy commander of the ABiH III Corps, Dzemal Merdan, who claimed that ABiH forces were preparing to blockade Zepce in order to suppress the HVO. Merdan claimed this tactic would subsequently be employed on Tesanj, Maglaj, Novi Seher, and Zavidovici.
Both sides shelled the town relentlessly during the battle. The ABiH units from outside Zepce held the high ground west, south, and east of Zepce but did not come down into the town itself, leaving the bitter fighting there to local Muslim forces. One witness claimed that the town was shelled continuously for seven days (presumably by the HVO) and that 80 percent of the casualties were Muslim, while not a single bullet hit the Varos area near the river, a Croat part of town.9 The inaccuracy of both the ABiH's and the HVO's artillery fire make Dedovic's claim incredible. In fact, the destruction of the town caused by the fighting was severe, perhaps half of its buildings having been bummed during the fight. The human toll on both sides was high as well, both for civilians and for military personnel.
Eventually, the HVO gained the upper hand and succeeded in pushing the Muslims to the river's south bank in the area known as Papratnica. By June 30, the HVO had cleared most of the Bosna River's west bank and the western portion of Zepce of Muslim attackers. The battle ended on June 30 with the surrender of the ABiH 305th and 319th Brigades. Galib Dervisic, the ABiH commander, had been called upon to surrender on June 25 but had refused. As the shelling intensified on June 26, the HVO slowly gained control of the town, and Muslim ammunition began to run low. Dervisic negotiated surrender terms with Bozidar Tomic on the thirtieth, agreeing to surrender the bulk of his forces in town at 5 P.M. However, some Muslim fighters held out in the eastern part of town and across the river in the Prijeko area. The Muslim forces across the river from Zepce managed to held out until September, when the HVO pushed them back from the bank toward Zenica and Kakanj, thus freeing Zepce from continued direct threat. Elements of the Green Berets in the Zenicki Put area refused Dervisic's surrender order and resisted until the next day, July 1, when they were finally forced to surrender to the HVO. Another group of 105 ABiH fighters escaped over the River Kranjace on June 18, refused Dervisic's surrender order, and held out in Zenicki Put until July 1, when they surrendered and were sent to the "silos."
Several BSA tanks, perhaps "borrowed" by the HVO, were positioned around town on June 29 and began firing on Muslim positions the next day. One eyewitness claimed he saw seventeen Serb tanks in the area while on his way to the HVO command post at Tatarbudzak, four or five kilometers from Zepce, on July 1.10 The reports of BSA tanks in Novi Seher and moving toward Maglaj seemed to genuinely worry ABiH III Corps leaders, who on the night of June 28-29 and again the next day complained to BRITBAT officers about what they conducted was active collusion between the BSA and the HVO in the Maglaj-Zepce-Zavidovid-Novi Seher area, noting that Maglaj itself was "being attacked by BSA artillery from the east and by HVO infantry from the west."
Following the ABiH surrender on June 30, approximately four thousand to five thousand Muslim civilians were detained by the HVO for seven to ten days in the area of the Nova Trogvina company warehouses under conditions that were unsatisfactory but comparable to those in which Croat civilians were detained by the ABiH elsewhere. Once released, many of the civilians went to the nearby village of Kiseljak (not to be confused with the town of Kiseljak) by way of Perovic. Captured ABiH military personnel were also detained at the Rade Kondic school, the elementary school in Perkovic Han, and, most notably, at the so-called silos. The conditions under which they were held were horrific, but they were no worse than those endured by HVO prisoners held by the ABiH in other areas. The Green Berets and the 105 ABiH soldiers who surrendered at Zenicki Put on July 1 appear to have been singled out for especially harsh treatment. Many of the military prisoners were later sent to Mostar when the local HVO com- mander pleaded that he could not maintain them properly.
The Muslim attack on Zepce was accompanied by simultaneous attacks on Zavidovici and Novi Seher, although Tesanj and Maglaj remained quiet. Elements of the HVO 111 xp Brigade in Zavidovici were surrounded by ABiH troops but held their positions on the north bank of the Bosna for a week before withdrawing over the mountain toward Zepce, taking the Croat civilians with them. They then established a line against the ABiH forces attacking Zepce. Some 1,000 Croat residents stayed in Zavidovici, but only 300-500 remained by the end of the conflict. Croat villagers from other locations fled as well: 800 from Lovnica, 500 from Dijacic, and 300 from Debelo Brdo. There were about 350 Croat casualties in Zavidovici itself, many of them civilians.
According to HVO sources, the Muslim-Croat conflict in the Zepce area began with the HVO refusal to surrender to the ABiH in Novi Seher. At 7:40 P.M. on June 24, the BRITBAT reponed that Novi Seher was "in flames." However, the major fighting there appears to have taken place on the morning of June 25, although the BRITBAT reponed continuing small-arms fire and some shelling during the afternoon. The BRlTBAT also reported that Novi Seher's streets appeared to be deserted and several houses were on fire, with HVO forces dug in around their headquarters in the southern pan of town. The ABiH HQ in town had been evacuated, and Muslims were manning positions in the northern pan of town. The HVO apparently controlled the villages of Lukici, Radjcici, Grabovica, Ponijevo, and Takal, and the former HVO headquarters was still intact with Marko Zelic in command. The front line ran from east to west through the center of town, and the ABiH 201st Brigade controlled the town center and the nearby villages of Strupina, Domislica, Cobe, and Kopice. Following the two-day fight for Novi Seher, the HVO area around the town was very compact, and HVO forces received supplies through the Serb lines. The HVO position was not continuous and consisted primarily of positions in front of the key villages.
The ABiH offensive against the HVO in the Zepce-Zavidovici area appears to have been initiated by ABiH III Corps rather than II Corps, which British UNPROFOR sources judged to be less concerned with promoting tensions with the HVO, noting that: "this interfactional fighting was probably started with the blessing of the commander, III Corps BlH. Whether it indicates a wider agenda, which might spread to II Corps BlH is hard to assess." Both Enver Hadzihasanovic, the ABiH commander, and deputy commander Dzemal Merdan told British UNPROFOR officers that the II Corps did not "understand what the HVO was capable of" and thus had not acted aggressively against it. The COMBRITFOR assessment of the radical nature of the ABiH III Corps command was that "the border between 2 and 3 Corps is almost like crossing into a different country. In the Tuzla area there is a real sense of common purpose with Muslims, Croats, and Serbs serving in the same units whether BIH or HVO. In the north people join the formation nearest their home regardless of whether it is BIH or HVO. The people in this area are as unable as we are to explain the ethnic violence which is taking place in Central Bosnia." Moreover, COMBRITFOR noted that this "gulf in understanding" also appeared to exist between the radical leaders of the ABiH III Corps and the RBiH government in Sarajevo.
When queried by the BRITBAT commander on June 24, as to the causes of the fighting between Muslim and Croat forces in the Zepce area, the ABiH III Corps commander replied, "it was purely a case of the 'problems' of the Lasva Valley spreading north." Indeed, it was; and Hadzihasanovic was himself the party responsible for their spread. On June 26, COMBRITFOR reported that a BRITBAT assessment noted that
"the reasons for the fighting throughout the area are still unconfirmed but the BIH are increasingly looking like the aggressors. If this is proven it might be regarded as a further stage in the perceived strategy of Muslim "land grab." The story of the "mujahadeen" involvement as the precursor has been noted in a number of areas. It would appear, however, that the capacity for escalation was either unforeseen or underestimated. At present, Tesanj is the only population centre unaffected and there must be a grave danger that the troubles will spread further and seriously compromise the line against the Serbs. Unlike the Travnik area, Maglaj and Zavidovici have traditionally been areas of Serb interest and they are unlikely to miss any available opportunity....This HQ assesses that the BlH took any escalation of the conflict with the HVO into consideration during their planning of the operation. It is assessed that the BIH want the HVO out of the 3 Corps area and think that they can achieve this and, at the same time, maintain the integrity of the [common front line] with the BSA in the Maglaj finger."11
In August, 1993, both sides took time to reassess their position. Colonel Tihomir Blaskic, the OZCB commander, conducted a review of the personnel and equipment status in his command and forwarded his report to Mostar on August 11. No report was available on the Bobovac (Vares), Kotromanic (Kakanj), 110th (Usora), 111xp (Zepce), or Josip Ban Jelacic (Kiseljak) Brigades due to poor communications.
By mid-October, the HVO personnel situation in central Bosnia was becoming critical, and Colonel Blaskic took note of the rising number of desertions by issuing an order calling for severe disciplinary measures to be taken against any HVO soldier abandoning his post on the defensive lines.
Leaders of the ABiH met in Zenica on August 21-22 to review the state of their forces and to plan for the continuation of the campaign against the HVO in central Bosnia and northern Herzegovina. Among the matters discussed were recent losses of territory to the BSA, the confused state of the RBiH's political leadership and the lack of support for the ABiH, the question of military discipline in the ABiH, logistical support and the development of an indigenous Bosnian arms industry, and the conflict with the HVO.
The newly formed ABiH VI Corps headquartered at Konjic was a problem from the beginning. Thus, on August 29, a team from ABiH GHQ headed by the chief of staff. Gen. Sefer Halilovic, began an investigation and assumed responsibility for coordinating the efforts of the III, IV, and VI Corps. The group's report, issued on September 20, noted deficiencies in the VI Corps, notably its failure to accomplish the previously assigned tasks of "liberating" the line of communications between Dusina (the hamlet in the Kiseljak municipality) and Fojnica and the "liberation" of Kresevo as well as the Konjic line of communications and the village of Celebici, making the planned operations in the Vrbas and Neretva Valleys more difficult. Problems in the VI Corps cited by the team included the inadequacies in staff training, the high number of desertions, the defection to the HVO of a security officer, and the murders of the commander of the 47th Mountain Brigade and other officers. The involvement of the corps headquarters in the growing of marijuana in the Blagaj area and its smuggling into Sarajevo and central Bosnia was also noted. The team report also remarked upon the unsatisfactory standards in the 317th Mountain Brigade from Bugojno and the poor performance of the independent Prozor battalion, which caused the loss of the Muslim positions "liberated" in the Crni Vrh. As a result of the Halilovic team's report, large-scale changes in the leadership of the ABiH III, IV, and VI Corps were recommended, and many changes were subsequently carried out. Among other changes, Mehmed Alagic replaced Enver Hadzihasanovic as the III Corps commander and Refik Lendo became the VI Corps commander. At the same time, Arif Pasalic, the IV Corps commander was replaced by Selmo Cikotic. These personnel changes marked teh ascendancy of the "hard-core" Bosnian Muslim faction, represendted by Hadzihasanovic and Alagic, over the ABiH's more moderate "multiethnic" leaders, and did not bode well for the Bosnian Croats surrounded by ABiH forces in central Bosnia
1 Sljivic, Kordic-Cerkez trial testimony. See also COMBRITFOR MILINFOSUM no. 226, June 10, 1993, para. 2c(13), KC D317/1; ibid., no. 227, para. 2c(7), KC D317/1; ibid., no 229., para. 2c(7), KC D317/1; and ibid., no 231, para. 2c(8-9), KC D317/1. The Kotromanic Brigade, commanded by Neven Maric, was subsequently dissolved. The ABiH takeover in Kakanj area resulted in as many as 120 Croats killed – mostly women and men aged fifty to eighty – and tewnty five hundred Croat homes, thirty chapels, and thirty cemeteries destroyed.
2 ECMM Team V3, "Background Report: Fojnica," 2, 3. According to Stjepan Tuka, former commander of the HVO battalion in Fojnica (Kordic-Cerkez trial testimony, Nov. 22, 1999), the ABiH destroyed about 70 percent of the Croat villages in the Fojnica area, and some 5,500 Croats became refugees.
3 The following account of the ABiH attack in Zepce-Zavidovici-Novi Seher area in June and July, 1993. is based on three principal sources; the prosecutor’s summary, witness statements, and other materials included in the so-called Zepce binder submitted by the ICTY prosecutor in the Kordic-Cerkez trial and subsequently admitted by the trial chamber; HVO artillery commander in the Zepce area, conversation with author, Zepce, Aug. 22, 1999; and contemporary MILINFOSUMs produced by COMBRITFOR.
4 COMBRITFOR MILINFOSUM no. 240, June 24, 1993, para. 2C(2), KC D317/1
5 For example, the Serbs in Ozren, northeast of Zepce, were eager to cooperate since they were not to be included in the Serbian area under the Vance-Owen peace plan. The Serbs offered to allow Croat civilians and wounded HVO personnel to pass through their lines as well as to provide the HVO with artillery support.
6 COMBRITFOR MILINFOSUM no. 240, June 24, 1993, para. 2C(2), KC D317/1.
7 HVO artillery commander conversation. One HVO civilian official stated that 116 HVO soldiers from Zepce died in battle against the Serbs while only twenty nine Muslim soldiers from Zepce perished. Overall, the 111xp Brigade suffered some 450 casualties from 1992-94.
8 Saint Ivo was the patron of Vrankovici Parish in the municipality of Zavidovici, but he was honored in Zepce as well. In fact, the Muslim forces attacked two days earlier than the written attack order from Zenica specified.
9 Dedovic, witness statement, 3. Page 2 of the OTP summary in the Zepce binder incorrectly states that the HVO occupied the surrounding hills and fired artillery into the town. However, the ABiH occupied the hills, west, south, and east of Zepce. As a result, the artillery fire from the direction of Papratnica and Zeljezno Polje at 9a.m. on June 23(?) could have only come from the ABiH forces occupying those areas (OTP Summary "Zepce binder,", 7). Known ABiH firing positions were in Ljubna, Bljuva and Vorosiste, all to the northwest of Zepce. See COMBRITFOR MILINFOSUM no. 242 para. 2C(2) (d), KC D317/1.
10 What the eyewitness apparently observed were seven tanks and ten armored fighting vehicles from the BSA Teslic Brigade’s 1st Batallion.
11 Ibid., para. 2C(3), KC D317/1.