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The ABiH Main Attack - Vitez, April, 1993

 

The Vitez Area


Tensions were high throughout central Bosnia on April 15, 1993. Resentment over the ABiH's January probing attacks and the increasing number of clashes between Muslims and Croats had created an atmosphere of fear, hatred, and distrust heightened by the kidnapping on April 13 of four officers from the HVO Stjepan Tomasevic Brigade in Novi Travnik, apparently by Muslim extremists. The ABiH blockaded the Novi Travnik-Gornji Vakuf (Uskoplje) road, the main supply route to Herzegovina, on Apri114, and at 7:15 on the morning of the fifteenth, Zivko Totic, commander of the HVO Jure Francetic Brigade, was kidnapped near his headquarters in Zenica during a brutal attack that left his four bodyguards and a bystander dead. That afternoon, Lt. Col. Bob Stewart, commander of the British UNPROFOR battalion stationed in the Lasva Valley, travelled to Zenica for a meeting with Muslim, HVO, ECMM, UNHCR, and International Red Cross representatives regarding the Totic kidnapping. The meeting was continued until the next morning, and Lieutenant Colonel Stewart spent the night in Zenica rather than return to his headquarters in Stari Bila. At about 5:30 A.M. on the sixteenth, he was awakened by an urgent telephone call from his second in command, Maj. Bryan Watters, who informed him "all hell was breaking loose in Vitez and the Lasva Valley." Indeed, it was; the main ABiH offensive against the Croat enclaves in the Lasva Valley had begun.

 

The HVO Intelligence Estimates


Stewart later testified that he did not expect the outbreak of a major conflict between the Muslims and Croats in the Lasva Valley. However, the HVO authorities, having been caught flat-footed by the ABiH probing attack in January, were not surprised. The targeting of the ABiH for intelligence purposes began soon after the January 20-21 attacks, and on March 25. lvica Zeko, the intelligence officer at HQ, OZCB, issued an intelligence estimate that accurately forecasted the nature, direction, and objectives of the April offensive.1 A trained intelligence officer, Zeko's analysis of the situation led him to conclude that extremists in the ABiH and SDA, together with Muslim fundamentalists in the Zenica region and military experts, had "devised a plan to destroy the HVO and take control of the territory of Central Bosnia," which "might enable them to ensure living space and safety for the Muslim population" while producing fewer casualties than an offensive against the BSA." According to Zeko, the detailed plans for the Muslim offensive were prepared by Refik Lendo for the Bugojno-Gornji Vakuf-Novi Travnik-Vitez area; by Vehbija Karic for the Kiseljak-Fojnica- Kresevo-Kakanj-Vares area; and by persons unknown in Zenica for the Zenica-Busovaca area.

According to Zeko's estimate, the offensive would open with action by sabotage teams against HVO command posts, communications and wire-tapping centers, logistics bases, and artillery positions. The ABiH would avoid a direct confrontation with HVO forces in the Tesanj-Maglaj- Zavidiovici-Novi Seher-Zepce area, where HVO troops held significant portions of the defense lines against the Serbs. However, the ABiH would seek to blockade HVO population centers, isolate HVO units, and overturn HVO civilian control through the establishment of checkpoints, the positioning of troops near critical installations, and direct attacks or sabotage operations directed against HVO command and control elements. Zeko noted that Muslim forces already surrounded the important population centers Kiseljak, Fojnica, Kresevo, Kakanj, and Vares. However, he believed, larger conflict might be avoided by determined confrontation inasmuch the majority of ABiH forces in the area occupied defensive lines to protect the vulnerable towns of Visoko, Breza, Olovo, Pazaric, and Tarcin from the Serbs. Due to HVO defensive preparations, Vares might be "a hard nut to crack," but the ABiH might achieve some success with selective attacks in the Kakanj, Kiseljak, and Fojnica area. For both the northern (Zepce) and eastern (Kiseljak) areas, Zenica was to be the command and control center, and any operations would be carried out by units from occupied area then quartered in Zenica as well as MOS, "Green League," Green Berets and Patriotic League forces.

According to Zeko, the main battles would occur in the crucial Vitez-Busovaca area and would involve direct offensive action by the ABiH along three main axes of attack: Kacuni-Busovaca-Kaonik-Vitez; Zenica-Kuber (Lasva)-Kaonik-Vitez; and Zenica-Preocica-Vitez. These attacks would be supplemented by forces attacking toward Vitez from Kruscica; from the areas of Vranjska and Poculica toward Sivrino Selo; and from the area of Han Bila through Stari Bila to cut the Travnik-Vitez road and complete the encirclement of HVO forces in the Vitez area. The main part of the ABiH force carrying out this portion of the plan would come from Zenica, Kakanj, all! Visoko. Having surrounded Vitez, the Muslim forces would then continue the attack until gaining full control of the town. In the event HVO force were able to stall the advance on the Han Bila-Vitez axis, the attacker might divert his forces toward Gornja Gora and thereby enable the ABiH forces in Travnik to leave the town and advance toward Vitez. However, ABiH operations in the Travnik-Novi Travnik area would not take the form of a direct attack but would involve small-scale actions to control the HVO units there and keep them from intervening in the Vitez area. Should Busovaca and Vitez fall to the attacker, Travnik and Novi Travnik would gradually be forced to surrender. Muslim forces in the areas of Bugojno, Gornji Vakuf and Fojnica would play an essential role in the offensive by blocking the approach routes to central Bosnia from Herzegovina and by providing manpower, equipment, and supplies for the attacking forces.

Zeko concluded his analysis by noting that the Muslim forces were already occupying the territories in question piece by piece, displacing the Croat population and taking full control, and that they would be likely to continue to do so unless "it is made clear to [them] that the initiation of clashes in broader areas with well-planned attacks in the least expected places will not be tolerated." He then went on to state: "A possible attack by the BH Army will be relentless and it is necessary to take all measures and actions to repel the attack and completely destroy the military strength wherever possible."

On March 14, Zeljko Katava, the Nikola Subic Zrinski Brigade's intelligence officer, had also warned of a possible ABiH attack. He believed the attackers would avoid the HVO position in Cajdras by advancing through Muslim territory from Zenica via Vrazale, Dobriljeno, and Vrhovine to launch an attack from Ahmici in order to cut the Vitez-Busovaca road and then continue via Donja Rovna to link up with Muslim forces in Vranjska. Katava noted in an earlier (January 6, 1993) estimate that ABiH forces had already constructed a road from their positions on Mount Kuber through Vrazale to Zenica, and on April 10, a week before the Muslim offensive began, HVO intelligence officers obtained additional information that the ABiH was indeed making preparations to carry out military operations in the Lasva Valley.

The HVO intelligence estimates were remarkably accurate in predicting the objectives, direction, and participating units of the ABiH offensive that began in mid-April, 1993. The situation remained quiet in the northern sector and around Vares, as well as in Travnik and-following a brief flare-up to pin down HVO forces and cut the road to Gornji Vakuf-Novi Travnik. The ABiH did not mount a general attack from all directions in the Kiseljak area, but again concentrated on trying to seize the critical road junction in the vicinity of Gomionica, which it had failed to do in January. Vitez, the SPS explosives factory, and the town of Busovaca were the primary ABiH objectives, and it was on them that the heaviest blows were struck. Elements of the 303d, 306th, and 325th Mountain Brigades, the 17th Krajina Mountain Brigade, and the 7th Muslim Motorized Brigade-with ABiH military police and antisabotage units (PDO)-participated in the attack in the Vitez area, while elements of the 333d Mountain Brigade attacked toward Busovaca.2 The objectives, as Zeko had predicted, were to cut the Travnik-Busovaca road at Kaonik, at Ahmici, at Stari Bila, and at the Pucarevo turnoff to divide the Travnik-Vitez-Busovaca enclave into smaller parts and isolate the HVO units in Vitez and Busovaca; to take the SPS factory; and to clear Croat civilians from their villages in the area. At the same time, action was taken to eliminate the two HVO brigades in Zenica and to clear Croat civilians from the town and the surrounding villages.

The plan nearly succeeded: the HVO forces in Zenica were eliminated; all ground contact between the Travnik-Vitez-Busovaca enclave and the Zepce and Vares areas as well as with Herzegovina was severed; the HVO brigade in Kakanj was eliminated; the center of Vitez was held by Muslim fighters; and hundreds of Croat civilians were driven from their homes in the region.However, the ABiH failed to achieve its main objectives. This was due in large part to aggressive preemptive attacks and counteraction by the heavily outnumbered HVO forces in the Lasva-Kozica-Lepenica area. At the end of the Muslim offensive's first push, Travnik, Novi Travnik, most of Vitez, Busovaca, Kiseljak, Fojnica, and Kresevo were still under HVO control; the SPS factory remained in HVO hands; and hundreds of Muslim civilians had fled or been temporarily removed from Muslim villages in the Vitez-Busovaca-Kiseljak area, which had been the target of HVO military action to clear key terrain along the lines of communication and in its rear areas.

Preparatory Operations


The ABiH's April attack in the Lasva Valley was preceded by a number of incidents that call to mind the classic Spetsnaz operations prescribed by Soviet and JNA offensive doctrine and which serve to clarify the fact that, contrary to the usual opinion, the ABiH, not the HVO, initiated the fighting in central Bosnia on April 16, 1993. These incidents were designed to probe and fix local HVO defensive positions, gain control of terrain features critical to the success of the planned operation, sow confusion and fear, and disrupt command and control by decapitating the HVO leadership. The number of minor incidents involving clashes between Muslims and Croats increased during the first two weeks in April. Then, immediately prior to the launching of the Muslim offensive, there were two serious incidents that had all the hallmarks of the classic Spetsnaz operation: the kidnapping of three HVO officers and their driver near Novi Travnik on April 13, and the bloody kidnapping of Zivko Totic, commander of the HVO Jure Francetic Brigade in Zenica, on the morning of April 15.

During the period April 1-11, the HVO 4th Military Police Battalion reported a number of minor incidents including assaults, murders, "carjackings," bombings, and armed clashes involving Muslim and Croat civilians and military personnel. Although many of these incidents were purely criminal or "private" in nature, some were no doubt provocations by the ABiH or extremist Muslim organizations designed to destabilize the situation, spread fear and confusion, and test the reaction of both HVO units and UNPROFOR and ECMM monitors. Typical incidents in the latter category included the March 29 murder of Slavko Pudj, a member of the Zenica HVO who was on guard duty, by three unknown persons in snow camouflage uniforms. The perpetrators escaped in the direction of Preocica, where a number of ABiH units were based. On April 4, someone threw a grenade or similar explosive device into the fenced storage yard of the Orijent Hotel, the HVO military police headquarters in Travnik. On April 9, three ABiH soldiers stopped Vlado Lesic near the Novi Travnik fire station and took his Golf automobile. Lesic was then taken to the Stajiste quarry, where he was abused, forced to bow in prayer, and made to speak in Arabic. The perpetrators fired in front of his feet and then forced him to jump into the quarry. They continued to fire at him, but failed to score any hits.

Several of the incidents in the Travnik area appear to have involved mujahideen or members of the extremist Muslim Armed Forces. On April 2, all HVO checkpoints in Zenica, Travnik, Vitez, and Busovaca were reinforced following an announcement by mujahideen in Zenica that they would attack the HVO military prison in Busovaca unless three MOS members were released. The same day, HVO military police reported that MOS members and mujahideen in Travnik were engaged in provocative and threatening behavior that included the singing of Muslim songs disparaging the Croat people and HVO military units. The Vitez civilian police arrested three armed mujahideen at a checkpoint on April 7, and the following day in Zenica, a van loaded with MOS members or mujahideen passed through the town as the occupants stuck their automatic rifles out the windows and threatened passersby. On April 9, HVO military police in Novi Travnik received telephone calls from someone who stated: "Do you know that there will be no Herceg-Bosna? Things have started in Travnik, now they will start here." That same day, some seventy prominent Croats from the Travnik area were arrested and held by the ABiH.

The HVO did little to avoid provoking such incidents, and a serious outburst of violence began in Travnik when a Muslim soldier fired on some HVO soldiers erecting a flag. Heavily armed soldiers from both sides prowled the streets of Travnik on the evening of April 8, and the conflict over the display of Croat flags continued the following day with armed clashes involving the HVO military police, the Vitezovi, and ABiH soldiers. The April 9 firing began when a group of Muslims attempted to tear down the flag at the Orijent Hotel. Warned to desist, they pressed on, and a small firefight ensued. There were no Croat casualties, but a number of Muslims were apparently killed or wounded. Following the fire fight in Travnik, HVO military police reported the arrival in Travnik of five trucks and several other vehicles carrying mujahideen and members of the Green Legion from Zenica. The conflict continued until Easter Sunday, April 11, with numerous sniper and bombing incidents, arrests and abuse of HVO officers and policemen by ABiH soldiers and mujahideen, and general unrest in the town.3

Two additional incidents, far more serious and far more evocative of classic decapitation operations to disrupt the enemy's command and control system, occurred in the days immediately preceding the April 16 ABiH attack. On April 13, four members of the Stjepan Tomasevic Brigade were kidnapped by mujahideen outside Novi Travnik. The four kidnapped personnel included Vlado Sliskovic, deputy commander of the Tomasevic Brigade; Ivica Kambic, the brigade SIS officer; Zdravko Kovac, the brigade intelligence officer; and their driver, Mire Jurkevic. The kidnapped HVO soldiers were bound, gagged, and blindfolded and remained so for most of their captivity. Early on they were beaten frequently and severely every day and interrogated frequently. They were also moved from place to place daily for a time, but were finally hidden at a hotel on the Ravno Rostovo plateau.

Kovac and the others learned much by listening to their captors, who openly bragged of their feat. Apparently the kidnapping was planned well in advance: the perpetrators had waited two days at the kidnap site hoping to take the Tomasevic Brigade's commander. The kidnap team consisted of four mujahideen: "Abu Hamzed" from Tunisia, the leader; "Abu Zafo," also from Tunisia; "Abu Mina" from Egypt; and "Abu Muaz" from Saudi Arabia. Twenty to thirty local Muslims assisted them. During the course of the kidnapping, the mujahideen did not cover their faces and did not hesitate to use their names, but the locals wore hoods. The kidnappers showed contempt for Dzemal Merdan, the deputy commander of the ABiH III Corps, and for the ABiH in general. They communicated by Motorola radio with the deputy commander of the 7th Muslim Motorized Brigade, whom they consulted several times regarding the disposition of the prisoners and who clearly had life-or-death power over them.

The kidnapping near Novi Travnik generated an intensive manhunt throughout the region. ABiH headquarters, feigning shock and surprise, joined HVO authorities in the hunt, which continued without success for some time. On April 14, the OZCB commander issued instructions for all of the HVO 4th Military Police Battalion's units to join in the search for the missing personnel. On April 18, Zeljko Sabljic, the Tomasevic Brigade commander, reported on the progress of the joint ABiH-HVO commission investigating the case, noting that it had identified Vahid Catic from the village of Drvetine (Bugojno municipality) as the driver of the truck used in the kidnapping.

On Apri114, in the wake of the Novi Travnik kidnapping, Muslim forces blocked the main supply route (MSR) to Herzegovina south of Novi Travnik. Thenceforth only UNPROFOR, UNHCR and other relief convoys, and ABiH-HVO teams looking for the kidnapped personnel were allowed to pass. Muslim villagers living along the MSR had operated checkpoints at various points on the route before April 14; ABiH soldiers manned the checkpoints after that date. The closing of the Novi Travnik-Gornji Vakuf road effectively cut off the Croat communities in central Bosnia from all supply and reinforcement from their compatriots in Herzegovina and forced a search for alternate routes over the mountains. Those alternate routes were subsequently closed in early July, 1993, and the surrounded Croats had to make do with the materiel on hand, minuscule amounts of critical items brought in by helicopter, and whatever they could manufacture themselves, seize from Muslim forces, or obtain from relief convoys en route to Sarajevo, Srebrenica, Gorazde, and other Muslim-held areas.

At 7:50 on the morning of April 15, Zivko Totic, commander of the HVO Jure Francetic Brigade in Zenica, was ambushed while en route to his headquarters. His four bodyguards and a bystander were brutally killed, and Totic himself disappeared without a trace. The ambush-subsequently determined to have been carried out by mujahideen-had all the hallmarks of a classic Spetsnaz "decapitation" operation, and it indeed had the intended effect. The Francetic Brigade's command and control system was severely disrupted, and the commander of the other HVO brigade in Zenica, Vinko Baresic, was placed under severe stress. A meeting to discuss the Totic kidnapping was held by EC ambassador Jean-Pierre Thebault, UNPROFOR, ECMM, UNHCR, Red Cross, ABiH, and HVO representatives on the after- noon of April 15 without substantive results. The senior ABiH representative, Dzemal Merdan, denied any ABiH involvement in the Totic affair and appeared otherwise unresponsive. The complicity of the ABiH III Corps headquarters in the Novi Travnik and Totic kidnappings remains uncertain in view of the subsequent identification of the perpetrators as mujahideen and Muslim extremists-some or all of whom may having been acting on the orders of the commander of the 7th Muslim Brigade, who was known to act independently. In any event, the two decapitation operations certainly served the III Corps commander's ends with respect to preparing the field for the April 16 offensive.

The three officers from the Tomasevic Brigade and their driver, as well as Zivko Totic, were subsequently exchanged for eleven mujahideen and two Muslim drivers arrested by the HVO between February 16 and early April, 1993. The exchange took place in Travnik, Kaonik, and Zenica on May 17, following the appearance in Zenica on April 19 of two mujahideen who claimed to be holding Totic and the others and who demanded the release of certain mujahideen prisoners held by the HVO for various offenses. The automobile the two mujahideen used while making the exchange demand was later spotted in the III Corps headquarters parking lot. The mujahideen released in Zenica on May 17 were greeted by at least a hundred masked and heavily armed soldiers, probably from the 7th Muslim Brigade, accompanied by a three-barrel 20-mm antiaircraft gun mounted on a five-ton truck, and numerous antitank and antiaircraft shoulder-launched missiles.

The Active Defense in the Vitez Area


In the early morning hours of April 15 the ABiH launched an attack on HVO positions on Mount Kuber north of Busovaca that resulted in three HVO soldiers killed in action (KIA). In view of the increase in incidents, the kidnapping of the four HVO personnel in Novi Travnik and of Zivko Totic, and the ABiH attack on Mount Kuber, Col. Tihomir Blaskic, the commander of Operative Zone Central Bosnia, made an estimate of the situation and issued a series of orders on April 15 preparing his forces for defensive action. The HVO forces in the immediate area of Vitez were very limited.4 The Viteska Brigade was still in the process of being formed. Only the 1st Battalion (formerly the Stjepan Tomasevic Brigade's 2d Battalion) was even partially organized, and it had a maximum potential of only about 270 men. In fact, on April 16 the Viteska Brigade was able to deploy only about 80 men. Another sixty men were on shift duty on the Turbe front against the BSA, and an additional 50 were at the hotel in Kruscica preparing to relieve the shift then at the front. The additional forces available to Colonel Blaskic included an unknown, but relatively small, number of HVO village guards; the Vitezovi PPN (about 120 men); the Tvrtko II PPN (probably less than 30 men); and a portion of the 4th Military Police Battalion (probably less than 100 men). The Vitezovi, the "Tvrtkovici," and the military policemen constituted the best organized, best equipped, and most experienced combat forces available to the OZCB commander in the Vitez area, and thus naturally were deployed to face the greatest perceived threats.

At 10 A.M. on the fifteenth, the 4th Military Police Battalion was ordered to increase security of the HQ, OZCB, command post, to ensure that the Travnik-Vitez-Busovaca road was open to all traffic, and to expect "a rather strong attack by the Muslim extremist forces from the direction of the villages Nadioci-Ahmici-Sivrino-Pirici."5 The Vitezovi were assigned responsibility for blockading the Muslim forces in Stari Vitez and preventing an attack from Stari Vitez toward the OZCB headquarters. The Viteska Brigade's 1st Battalion was assigned the mission of blocking any ABiH advance on Vitez from the Kruscica- Vranjska area. In view of the fact that the Viteska Brigade was not yet fully operational, Mario Cerkez, the brigade commander, deployed his remaining forces in a sector defense arrangement with several small combat groups assigned to each sector. All combat forces in the OZCB were ordered to carry out the defense of their assigned zones of responsibility to "prevent the extremist Muslim forces from effecting open cleansing of the territory, the genocide over the Croatian people, and the realization of their goals."

During the course of the day, Colonel Blaskic received additional information regarding a possible attack by the ABiH and accelerated the preparation and positioning of his available forces.6 At 3:45 P.M., he issued orders to all subordinate units to take additional measures to increase combat readiness, prepare for defensive action, and initiate increased antiterrorist, intelligence-gathering, and security measures. The ostensible purpose of such actions was to deter or counter aggressive actions by the 7th Muslim Brigade, the forces of which "have intensified their diversionary terrorist activities within the Operational Zone of Central Bosnia, and have been acting in a most brutal way. ...These activities are planned, organised and promptly executed with the purpose of causing confusion within the HVO units and in order to prepare preconditions for offensive action and for capturing Croatian territory."

By the early morning hours of April 16, Colonel Blaskic had alerted and deployed his limited available forces to meet the anticipated ABiH attack. In the ensuing battle, the HVO, significantly outnumbered and still not fully organized, successfully defended its lines against heavy and repeated ABiH assaults. The successful HVO defense in the Vitez area was due in large part to good intelligence work and the aggressive use of "active defense" measures to disrupt the ABiH offensive. The use of preemptive and spoiling attacks as well as blocking forces and clearing operations-often initiated and carried out by subordinate elements based on local assessments of the situation-prevented ABiH forces attacking the Vitez area from gaining their principle objectives: cutting the vital Travnik-Busovaca road, and seizing the SPS explosives factory. 7

The aggressive actions of HVO forces in the Lasva Valley on April 16 were, in fact, mainly blocking operations and spoiling attacks intended to disrupt the ABiH offensive, prevent the breaching of HVO defensive positions and the loss of key positions such as OZCB headquarters and the SPS explosives factory, and retain control of the Travnik-Busovaca road. The HVO subsequently mounted a number of limited counterattacks and small clearing operations to regain or seize control of key terrain in the area of operations and to strengthen defensive positions by eliminating pockets of ABiH forces with direct observation and fields of fire on HVO positions. Four such HVO actions during the April fighting in the Vitez area merit special attention: the spoiling attack on the village of Ahmici; the clearing operations in the village of DonjaVeceriska and in the village of Gacice, both of which overlook the SPS factory just west of Vitez; and the attempt to contain and then reduce the Muslim pocket in the Stari Vitez-Mahala section of the town of Vitez.

Ahmici


The HVO attack on the village of Ahmici on April 16 and the subsequent massacre of many of its Muslim inhabitants is perhaps the most notorious incident of the Muslim-Croat civil war in central Bosnia and has been at the center of at least five cases before the ICTY in which Bosnian Croat military and political leaders and HVO soldiers have been charged with war crimes.8 Although later portrayed by ICTY prosecutors as the epitome of Croat atrocities in central Bosnia, the events at Ahrnici on April 16 seem to have aroused little comment at the time-other than on the part of Lt. Col. Bob Stewart, the BRITBAT commander-and apparently did not become an issue for the Muslims until 1994-95.9 However, despite investigations by the United Nations and the governments of both Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia, voluminous testimony before the ICTY by both Muslim and Croat witnesses, and the conclusions of ICTY prosecutors and judges, what actually happened in the village of Ahmici on the morning of April 16, 1993, and why, remain unclear. The most common interpretation is that the innocent Muslim inhabitants of the village were subjected to an unprovoked attack by HVO military police special operations forces. However, the available facts suggest a less fanciful alternative explanation: that Ahmici was a legitimate military target; that the village was defended by armed Muslim forces; that the OZCB commander, anticipating an attack by ABiH forces through the village, ordered a justifiable spoiling attack; and that the unit responsible for carrying out that attack, an element of the HVO 4th Military Police Battalion, either by premeditated design or in the heat of battle or both, went on a mindless rampage that included killing civilians and burning most of the Muslim section of the village.

The village of Ahmici was undoubtedly a legitimate military target for an HVO spoiling attack at the time by virtue of both its location and its probable use as an ABiH staging area. The village lies approximately three and one-half kilometers east of Vitez and on high ground some two hundred meters north of the main Travnik-Busovaca road. It is thus in a position to control the key route through the Lasva Valley at one if its most restricted points by direct and indirect fire.10 Muslim TO forces from Ahmici set up a roadblock near the village in October, 1992, to prevent the passage of HVO forces headed toward Jajce, and it was clearly identified by HVO intelligence sources at various times in March and April, 1993, as being astride the planned ABiH axes of attack into the Vitez area from the north and east. Given the proximity of the village to the Travnik-Busovaca road, it was the most likely assembly area for elements of the ABiH 325th Mountain Brigade and other ABiH forces tasked to make the attack across the road toward the Kruscica area on April 16.

Despite the repeated denials of senior ABiH commanders, on April 16 the village of Ahmici was clearly defended by local Muslim Territorial Defense forces as well as by ABiH elements staging for the attack across the Travnik-Kaonik road. The village is clearly marked on a captured ABiH operational map as being occupied by ABiH forces in January, 1993, and on April 11, 1993, Enes Varupa, a Muslim TO commander, recorded in his notebook that a TO company of at least eighty-five men was in the village on that date.11 Muslim TO members also met at their headquarters in the Zumara elementary school in Ahmici on April 11 to discuss plans for defending the village. Muslim forces in Ahmici were assigned "clearly defined tasks, to secure the line toward Nadioci," and trenches and a number of dugouts had been prepared.12 An HVO intelligence estimate dated April 10 placed elements of the ABiH 325th Mountain Brigade in the village, and elements of the ABiH 303rd Mountain Brigade were also ordered to support the Muslim forces in Ahmici. Croatian Defense Council sources also reported that the ABiH infiltrated thirty exceptionally well-armed soldiers into the village on Apri114. On the evening of the fifteenth, the Muslim forces in Ahmici increased their level of security. In addition to the regular guards, ten men were on standby in the lower part of the village, and the guard force in the upper part of the village was doubled. During the course of the fight for the village on April 16, the Muslim forces in the village were reinforced from Vrhovine, and reinforcements from Poculica and the 325th Mountain Brigade were promised but failed to arrive in time to affect the situation. The HVO assault forces encountered resistance, including shelling by the ABiH, and after the action they recovered weapons and large amounts of ammunition, including 7.62-mm and 12.7-mm machine gun ammunition and RPG-7 rocket propelled grenades.13

The HVO spoiling attack on Ahmici was planned on the afternoon and evening of April 15, and Pasko Ljubicic, commander of the 4th Military Police Battalion, briefed members of his command in the Hotel Vitez, noting that a Muslim message had been intercepted saying that the ABiH would attack in the morning on April 16 and that to forestall the attack the HVO would attack first. Ljubicic then issued orders for elements of the 1st Company to join the 4th Military Police Battalion's Antiterrorist Platoon (known as the "Jokers") at the "Bungalow," a former restaurant close to the road in Nadioci. At 1 :30 A.M. on the sixteenth, Colonel Blaskic, the OZCB commander, issued written orders for the 4th Military Police Battalion to block the Ahmici-Nadioci road (where he expected the Muslim attack) by 5:30 A.M. and to crush the enemy offensive. Further briefings were conducted at the Bungalow, and Ljubicic's second in command noted that several mujahideen had infiltrated into Ahmici during the night.14

The seventy-five-man assault force consisting of the "Jokers" and other elements of the 1st Company, 4th Military Police Battalion, augmented by a few local HVO members was divided into assault teams and moved out from the area of the "Bungalow" between 4:30 and 4:45 hours on the morning of the sixteenth. At 5:30, a single artillery round was fired-the agreed upon signal to start the assault-and the ground assault on the Muslim section of Ahmici was launched from the village's southeastern quadrant. Muslim forces in the lower part of the village resisted vigorously, and the attacking HVO troops immediately came under heavy Muslim fire.15 Muslim defenders barricaded in the mosque and the elementary school were supported by ABiH artillery, by light fire from the villages of Vrhovine and Pirici, and by snipers firing constantly from the woods and clearings above the village.

The Muslim fire was intense, killing three HVO military policemen and wounding three more.16 The HVO countered with intense mortar, small arms, and automatic weapons fire. Many buildings were set afire by tracers. At some point, whether by chance or by premeditated design, the responsible HVO commanders surrendered control of the situation, and what had been a legitimate, well-justified HVO spoiling attack deteriorated into a mindless rampage by the attacking HVO military policemen. Angered by earlier confrontations with the Muslims, the HVO attackers worked their way through the village using automatic weapons and grenades and killing men, women, and children in a cruel and indiscriminate manner.

Unable to stem the HVO advance and failing promised reinforcements from Poculica and the 303d and 325th Mountain Brigades, the Muslim defenders evacuated the remaining civilians toward Vrhovine. They briefly considered a last-ditch stand in the upper village (Gornji Ahmici) before withdrawing at about 4 A.M. on April 17 to establish a defensive line at Barica Gaj, some 150 meters north of Ahmici, where the Muslim line remained until the Washington Agreements in March, 1994. Those Muslim inhabitants remaining in the village after the HVO assault were subsequently taken to the camp in Donja Dubravica and held there for some time.

From a purely military point of view, the HVO spoiling attack at Ahmici was very successful. The planned Muslim attack across the Travnik-Busovaca road in the Ahmici area was completely disrupted and could not be resumed. However, the destruction in the village was horrific, and civilian casualties were appalling. Most of the Muslim houses in the lower village were burned, some with the inhabitants inside. Many houses were set afire by incendiary ammunition and grenades used in the assault, but others were no doubt deliberately "torched." According to some accounts, as many as 109 Muslim civilians, including women and children, died or were missing as the result of the combat action and deliberate killing by the enraged and out of control HVO assault troops. Once the events in Ahmici on April 16 became known, the behavior of the HVO troops was justly characterized as a massacre, and a great deal of effort subsequently has been expended to bring the perpetrators to justice. Although the HVO forces' actions on Apri116, particularly with respect to the unarmed Muslim civilians in the village, undeniably merit condemnation regardless of the emotional state engendered by active combat, the fact remains that the assault began as a legitimate military operation: a spoiling attack to disrupt the planned ABiH attack through Ahmici to cut the Travnik-Busovaca road: To have ordered such a spoiling attack was no war crime, although the events that ensued may have reached that level of culpability. It seems clear that the tragedy resulted not so much from the design of senior HVO leaders but rather from the working of that fear, anger, and madness attendant on many combat operations. In that respect, at least, the tragic events at Ahmici bear afar stronger resemblance to those at My Lai than to those at Lidice or Oradour-sur-Glane.

Donja Veceriska


Even with good planning and near-perfect execution, collateral damage is inevitable during military operations in built-up areas. However, the HVO spoiling attack on the village of Ahmici was clearly an aberration, causing disproportionate destruction and wanton killing of noncombatants. The HVO clearing action in the village of Donja Veceriska on April 16-18, 1993, was much more representative of HVO operations conducted to foil the ABiH offensive in the Vitez area.17

The village of Donja Veceriska is located on a hill about one and one-half kilometers northwest of the center of Vitez and immediately overlooking the SPS explosives factory. In 1993, the population of the village was about 580 souls, of whom about 60 percent were Muslim and about 40 percent were Croats. The village dominated the factory and was thus very much "key terrain," since the SPS explosives factory was a major ABiH objective throughout the Muslim-Croat conflict in central Bosnia. Until late 1992, the village's Croat and Muslim inhabitants worked together to protect it from a possible attack by Bosnian Serb forces. However, in October and November there was an influx of Muslim refugees from Jajce and elsewhere, tensions grew, and the joint Muslim-Croat village guard forces were disbanded. The Muslims began digging trenches in the village, and the number of provocations by Muslim extremists increased. In mid-March, 1993, the Croats in Donja Veceriska began planning to defend the village against possible action by Muslim extremists. The HVO reserve forces (essentially the Croat village guard) were organized, the evacuation of the Croat civilian population in the event of conflict was planned, and demands were issued for the filling in of trenches and the cessation of provocations.

In April, the Muslim Territorial Defense forces in Donja Veceriska included a platoon of forty to fifty men, one machine gun, two automatic rifles, eleven miscellaneous small arms, and various vehicles. According to one Croat resident present at the time, the number of armed and uniformed Muslim soldiers plus armed Muslim refugees in Donja Veceriska may have been closer to a hundred, and their armament included AK-47s, "Gypsy" assault rifles, an M40 sniper rifle, Molotov cocktails, and other arms as well as a quantity of explosives obtained from the SPS factory by Bolo Josic. They also had "Motorolas" (handheld radios) to communicate with ABiH commanders in Stari Vitez. At the same time, the HVO Home Guard forces in the village numbered less than fifty men armed with AK-47 assault rifles, shotguns, and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). They, too, were equipped with Motorola radios that enabled them to communicate with higher-level commanders.

The whole Lasva Valley was on alert on evening of April 15, and Ivica Drmic, the HVO leader in Donja Veceriska, received information that the Muslims would attack at 9 A.M. on April 16, 1993, although Colonel Blaskic did not assign any of the OZCB regular forces to defend the village. The Croat families left at the first sign of trouble, and some Muslim civilians were evacuated in a different direction. Both groups of evacuees subsequently mixed at the "train station" on April 17. At around 5:30 A.M. on April 16, the Muslim forces in Donja Veceriska opened fire and attempted to gain control of the village and thus be in a position to dominate the SPS factory and to fire on HVO positions in Vitez. There was a great deal of confusion on all sides, but shortly before 8 AM. an HVO assault force was organized consisting of ten to twelve local men augmented by twelve to fifteen members of the Tvrtko II special purpose force. Their task was to gain control of the village, suppress the Muslim firing, and take the house of Midhat Haskic, a radical Muslim, which was being used to store arms. Fighting from house to house from the top of the village down, the HVO "assault force" succeeded in clearing Muslim fighters from ten to fifteen houses before being stopped at the Muslim strong point at Haskic's house in the middle of the village. All the armed Muslim refugees in Donja Veceriska joined in the fight, and the firing continued all day long, stopping only after midnight on April 17. United Nations Protection Force elements entered the village on April 16 and 17 but did nothing to stop the fighting. During the early morning hours of April 18, UNPROFOR evacuated the remaining Muslim villagers from Donja Veceriska.18 The fighting in Donja Veceriska resumed on April 18, and shortly after noon the HVO mounted a determined house-to-house push that finally cleared the village. The remaining Muslim fighters, having expended their ammunition, withdrew to Grbavica.

During the fighting in Donja Veceriska from April 16-18, the HVO forces suffered seven or eight wounded in action (WIA), including one who died of his wounds. The Muslims had six or seven KIA, and the HVO took nine Muslim prisoners. The latter were held overnight in Vitez and then released. Some Muslim civilians were also detained in Vitez, but all were released within three days.

By taking quick action to forestall Muslim seizure of the village, the HVO forces in Donja Veceriska eliminated a serious threat to the SPS explosives factory and the engagement of HVO forces in Vitez from the rear. The casualties inflicted were entirely proportionate to the ends of the operation, which appears in every way to have been a straightforward and quite legitimate clearing action with minimal military and civilian casualties and destruction of property.

Gacice


Events on April 16-19 in the village of Gacice, located on a hill two kilometers southwest of the center of Vitez and immediately to the southeast of the SPS explosives factory, paralleled those in Donja Veceriska and culminated in an HVO clearing operation to take the village. Gacice overlooks-and therefore dominates the SPS factory and is also well within mortar and recoilless rifle range of the center of Vitez. For a time in late 1992, the headquarters of the ABiH 325th Mountain Brigade was located in Gacice's middle school, the so-called Yellow House.

In April, 1993, Gadce numbered about 378 souls, evenly divided between Muslims and Croats. The upper village was mixed, but the lower village near the cemetery and the explosives factory was mostly Muslim. Almost everyone in the village worked in the explosives factory. Some two hundred Muslim refugees from the Krajina moved into Gacice during 1992, perhaps as part of a centrally directed plan to infiltrate Muslim refugees into critical areas in order to change the ethnic balance. Tensions grew between the two ethnic groups that summer, and for a time the Muslims blocked the road by the school.

The Muslims in Gacice had few weapons until August, 1992, when the HVO and TO tried to take over the JNA armory at Slimena in Travnik. The armory was mined, and the Muslims broke in to get arms and exploded the mines while the HVO was negotiating with the JNA. The Muslims subsequently took the pieces and reassembled them into whole weapons. By mid-April, 1993, the Muslim TO forces in Gacice consisted of perhaps sixty well-organized and well-armed men. According to Enes Varupa, they had at least one machine-gun, a radio transmitter, some twenty-eight small arms, and various vehicles. Most were armed with AK-47 and "Gypsy" automatic assault rifles. They also had handheld Motorola radios to communicate with ABiH commanders. Once they were armed and organized, the Gacice Muslims became much more aggressive, and a number of clashes with the Croat inhabitants occurred.

Before the outbreak of fighting in the Lasva Valley on April 16, the HVO had no indication that the ABiH planned an armed takeover in Gacice.19 Once the fighting started on the sixteenth, the Muslims in town, lacking a clear superiority over the Croat inhabitants, sought reinforcements from the ABiH 325th Mountain Brigade in Kruscica and negotiated with the HVO in order to extend the time needed for reinforcements to arrive. The HVO recognized the stalling for what it was, but before attempting to clear the village the HVO gave the Muslims a chance to give up their arms and surrender without a fight. The Muslim response was to start digging in. The HVO then assembled an assault force consisting of a few policemen, about twenty village guards from Gacice and a few from nearby Kamenjace, and ten to fifteen members of the Vitezovi special purpose force.20 At about 6:30 in the morning on April 19, the HVO initiated an assault intended to clear the village of the armed Muslim forces and to halt the firing on Vitez.

The HVO forces attacked in six or seven groups; the Muslims defenders were in three groups. One group of five to seven Muslims surrendered at 4:30 P.M. Others escaped, setting fire to Croat homes on the way out. However, the Muslims were willing to sacrifice their civilians, and although most stayed in their homes, none were killed. The Muslim soldiers fleeing from Gacice took advantage of the roughly six-hundred-meter-long escape route near the SPS factory purposefully left open for Muslim civilians by the HVO. Following the battle, which ended by 5:30 P.M. on the nineteenth, the HVO rounded up Muslim civilians and moved them to Vitez, where they were held until after the fighting in the area ended. They were then returned to their homes the following day.

In the Gacice clearing operation the HVO lost one KIA, and the Muslims lost three KIA (including a man they themselves killed because he did not wish to fight his Croat neighbors). The Viteska Brigade reported taking forty-seven prisoners. Two Muslim 82-mm mortars (without ammunition) and an M-84 machine gun were found after the action ended.

The contest for Gacice appears to have been a straightforward fight for control of a key piece of terrain following Muslim firing on Vitez, unsuccessful negotiations, and an offer by the HVO to resolve the situation without a fight. People were killed and things were broken-but certainly not disproportionately, and the HVO apparently did take positive action to ameliorate the effects of the battle on civilians by offering to accept surrender before the assault and by providing an escape route for Muslim civilians, although it should be noted that the usual Muslim pattern of retaining civilians in the battle area was practiced at Gacice.

Stari Vitez


Some of the most vicious fighting in the weeklong battle in the Vitez area focused on the Muslim enclave in the Stari Vitez-Mahala section of Vitez. Stari Vitez was a Muslim stronghold barely two hundred yards from the HVO OZCB headquarters. Beginning in November, 1992, the ABiH moved in experienced fighters, dug trenches, warehoused ammunition, and shifted an antiaircraft gun from the SPS factory to Stari Vitez. By April, 1993, the TO headquarters in Stari Vitez commanded at least 350 Muslim combatants. They were well-armed with small arms and automatic weapons; an antiaircraft gun; two 60-mm mortars; one M-84 heavy machine gun; three to six 7.62-mm light machine guns; ten rocket-propelled grenade launchers; and three sniper rifles, along with some 360 mortar shells. The Muslim forces were deployed in trenches and shelters constructed around Muslim houses, with strong points in Mahala-Rakite near Otpad, in the community center, in the Metal Borac shop near the cemetery, and in Donja Mahala.

In anticipation of an attack on OZCB headquarters in the early morning t hours of Apri116, Colonel Blaskic ordered the Vitezovi to prevent any attack from Stari Vitez. When OZCB headquarters came under fire on the 6 morning of April 16, HVO forces acted immediately to isolate the Muslims forces in Stari Vitez. The Vitezovi, supported by military and civilian police and troops from the Viteska Brigade, encircled the enclave. A siege like fight ensued as HVO forces first blockaded and then attempted to reduce the enclave and eliminate a serious cancer in their midst. Meanwhile, Muslim forces attacked repeatedly from north of the Travnik-Busovaca road to break through and reinforce their embattled comrades in Stari Vitez.

The battle for the Stari Vitez enclave continued long after the April 18 cease-fire agreement, with frequent shelling of the enclave by the HVO, intense sniper fire from both sides, and occasional attempts at ground assaults by both the Muslims in Stari Vitez and the HVO troops surrounding the enclave. Throughout the so-called siege, Muslim forces in Stari Vitez continued to receive limited amounts of supplies by infiltration through the HVO lines, from humanitarian organizations, with the help of UNPROFOR, and allegedly from the HVO.21 The battle produced heavy casualties on both sides, but the Muslim stronghold proved too hard a nut for the HVO to crack. Finally, on February 27, 1994, UNPROFOR forces mounted Operation Stari Simon and broke into the enclave to evacuate the Muslim sick and wounded.

Assessment


The HVO forces were under legal and moral obligations to conduct their military operations in accordance with the accepted laws of land warfare and the international treaties governing the conduct of military operations, but they were under no obligation to remain inactive and permit Muslim forces to attack them with impunity. Thus, having learned of the planned Muslim attack, Colonel Blaskic laid out an aggressive plan of active defense to foil the Muslim offensive. Except for the deplorable conduct of his subordinates in Ahmici, Colonel Blaskic's employment of the meagre forces at his disposal was admirable. He correctly assessed the main threats and assigned his strongest forces to deal with them. Thus, elements of the 4th Military Police Battalion carried out a successful spoiling attack on the presumed ABiH assembly area in Ahmici, an attack that unfortunately deteriorated into a massacre of Muslim civilians. The Vitezovi blocked the strong Muslim forces in Stari Vitez, and the half-formed Viteska Brigade prevented a Muslim advance out of Kruscica and Vranjska. When Muslim forces in Donja Veceriska and Gacice posed a threat to Vitez and to the SPS factory, HVO assault forces composed of village guards augmented by small special purpose force detachments conducted successful clearing operations. Elsewhere in the Vitez area, local Croat forces, primarily village guards, held the line against advancing ABiH troops. Again with the exception of Ahmici, all of these operations were conducted within the bounds of expected norms. Although casualties were heavy, they were not disproportionate to the legitimate military objectives sought

______________________________________

1 Military Intelligence Service, HQ, OZCB, no. 205-8-I/93, Vitez, Mar. 25, 1993, subj: Estimation of Possible Activities by a Potential Aggressor in the Territories of the Central Bosnia Operative Zone, B d190. It should be noted that Zeko’s analysis was contemporary and not an ex post rationalization.
2 Zeko, Blaskic trial testimony, Sept. 11 and 21, 1998; HQ, ABiH III Corps, no. 02/33-867 (to commander, 303d Mountain Brigade), Zenica, Apr. 16, 1993, subj: Order to move out and occupy positions, KC Z673 and KC D190/1
3 HVO Travnik, no. HVO-01-582/93, to the presidents of Croatia, the HZ HB, and the HVO, Travnik, Apr. 12, 1993, subj: Report of the Travnik HVO on the armed conflicts in Travnik before and during Easter festivities, KC Z647. The letter contains a detailed account of the April 8-12 conflict in Travnik and calls upon Croatian president Franjo Tudjman to deny passage through Croatia to "foreign citizens from Islamic and Arab countries using the Republic of Croatia as a transit area to enter Bosnia and Herzegovina in order to fight in the units of BH Army against everything that is Croatian and Christian" (ibid., 2-3).
4 Maj. Anto Bertovic, Kordic-Cerkez trial testimony, Oct. 4-5, 2000. Bertovic estimated that at the beginning of April 1993, the overall ratio of ABiH to HVO forces in the Lasva Valley was probably four to one.
5 HQ, OZCB, Vitez, 1000, Apr. 15, 1993, subj: Preparatory Combat Command for the Defense of HVO and the Town of Vitez from Extremist Mudjahedin-Muslim Forces, KC Z660.1.
6 The HVO Main Staff apparently informed HQ, OZCB, of the forthcoming attack after making a number of communications intercepts (Bertovic, Kordic-Cerkez trial testimony; OZCB Duty Officer Log, 70-71). Communications intercepts were a common form of intelligence collection used extensively by both sides.
7 U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Pub 1'02, defines Active defense as the “employment of limited offensive action and counterattacks to deny a contested area or position to the enemy”. A spoiling attack is “A tactical maneuver employed to seriously impair a hostile attack while the enemy is in the process of forming and assembling for attack” A preemptive attack is defined as “An attack initiated on the basis of incontrovertible evidence that an enemy attack is imminent”. Both are legitimate military operations but to an observer imperfectly informed as to the overall operational situation, either might appear to be entirely offensive in nature. However, although by definition both are “attacks”, both are essentially defensive operations, designed to prevent the success of a planned enemy attack and to preserve the defensive position intact (ibid. 3, 195, 355)
8 Among those tried and convicted of war crimes related to the Ahmici incident are: Maj. Gen. Tihomir Blaskic, then commander of the OZCB; Dario Kordic, then a prominent Croat politician in the Lasva Valley; Mario Cerkez, then commander of the Viteska Brigade; Vladimir Santic, then commander of the 1st Company, 4th Military Police Batallion; and Anto Furundzija, then commander of the antiterrorist platoon, 4th Military Police Batallion. Among the HVO soldiers tried, Dragan Papic was acquitted; Drago Josipovic was convicted; and the convictions of Zoran Kupreskic, Mirjan Kupreskic and Vlatko Kupreskic were overturned on appeal. The trial of Pasko Ljubicic, then commander of the 4th Military Police Batallion, is pending.
9 See, among others, Filipovic, Kordic-Cerkez trial testimony, Apr. 11, 2000. The matter was apparently not even discussed at ABiH-HVO Joint Commission meetings (Franjo Nakic, Kordic-Cerkez trial testimony, Apr. 14, 2000). Even Stewart did not mention Ahmici in his diary until April 22, well after the event. See Stewart diary, Apr. 22, 1993, sec. 3, 41: “ABiH reluctant to withdraw due to claimed incident at Ahinici [Ahmici].”
10 Even UNPROFOR officers have stated that the village had military significance. See, for example, Lt. Col. Bryan S. C. Watters, Kordic-Cerkez trial testimony, July 29, 1999. Watters was deputy commander of the 1st Batallion, 22d (Cheshire) Regiment, the British UNPROFOR unit in the Lasva Valley in April, 1993. Both the deputy commander and chief of staff of the OZCB identified the Ahmici-Santici area as the narrowest part of the Croat Vitez enclave and thus of supreme military significance (Filipovic, Kordic-Cerkez trial testimony, Apr. 11, 2000; Franjo Nakic, Kordic-Cerkez trial testimony, Apr. 13, 2000)
11 Captured ABiH map entitled “Obostrani Raspored Snaga u zoni 3. korpusa kraj decembra 1992. g. – januar 1993. god”; Enes Varupa notebook, entry for Apr. 11, 1993, B D17. Varupa was a member of the Muslim TO in the Lasva Valley. His notebook was captured by the HVO at Grbavica later in 1993.
12 Statement of Fuad Berbic. 5. Berbic had commanded the Muslim TO forces in Ahmici in 1992. The fortification of Ahmici before April 16 was also confirmed by the testimony of Witness CW1 in the Blaskic trial.
13 Witness AT, Kordic-Cerkez trial testimony, Nov 27, 2000, as cited in Kordic-Cerkez Judgment 213. Witness AT was a senior member of the 4th Military Police Batallion and was present in Ahmici on April 16. He testified in a private session late in the Kordic-Cerkez trial, and although referred to in the Kordic-Cerkez Judgment, his testimony is not available on the ICTY website. The Kordic-Cerkez defense team impugned Witness AT’s character and veracity, but the prosecutor and the trial chamber relied heavily upon his testimony. His allegations regarding the attack’s planning and the supposed orders of senior HVO commanders are probably false, but his narration of some of the events leading up to the attack and the assault itself are credible.
14 According to Witness AT, Pasko Ljubicic told the assault force that Colonel Blaskic had ordered all the Muslim men in the village to be killed, the houses set on fire, and the civilians spared. Given the unreliability of Witness AT on such matters, it is doubtful that Blaskic ever issued such instructions.
15 "When the attack commenced our guards and reinforcements in the lower part of Ahmici engaged in combat” (Statement of Fuad Berbic, 5). See also Witness AT, Kordic-Cerkez trial testimony, Nov 27, 2000, as cited in Kordic-Cerkez Judgment, 213.
16 HQ, 4th Military Police Batallion, Vitez, April 16, 1993, subj: Report, B D280; Witness AT, Kordic-Cerkez trial testimony, Nov 27, 2000, as cited in Kordic-Cerkez Judgment, 213. Witness AT stated that the mosque was used as a strong point and that there was an observation post and heavy machine gun located in the minaret (ibid., 207). Antitank rockets hit the mosque during the attack and the minaret collapsed. Colonel Stewart testified in the Blaskic trial that he found the reports of the use of the mosque as a strong point incredible "because mosques are rotten places to defend". However, mosques were frequently used as hiding places, assembly areas, command posts, and storage areas for arms and ammunition for Muslim forces throughout the central Bosnia area. That some of the Muslim forces in Ahmici, under heavy ground attack, should have barricaded, themselves in the mosque (and elementary school) is, in fact, consistent with reports from other areas during the period.
17 Details of the events in Donja Veceriska from December 1992, through April, 1993, are drawn primarily from Bono Drmic, Kordic-Cerkez trial testimony, Sept. 27, 2000; and Witness V, Kordic-cerkez trial testimony, Nov 25, 1999. In 1993, Drmic, a Bosnian Croat, was a firefighter at the SPS factory and a resident of Donja Veceriska. It should be noted that there is an important distinction between English words clearing and cleansing, a distinction not always reflected by the interpreters in trials before the ICTY when translating the BSC word ciscenje. In American military parlance, the term cleansing operation implies a legitimate local offensive operation designed to clear enemy and armed forces from key terrain.
18 HQ, Viteska Brigade, no. 01-125-23/93, Vitez 0600, Apr. 18, 1003, subj: Operations Report for the period midnight to 0600, B D307; Bono Drmic, Kordic-Cerkez tral testimony. The UNPROFOR forces in central Bosnia routinely evacuated wounded Muslims to hospitals and Muslim civilians to places of safety but refused to perform the same services for Croats. See, among others, the complaints recorded April 17-19 in OZCB Duty Officer Log, 109, 112, 119, 126, 128-129, 139.
19 Nikola Mlakic testified that shortly before the outbreak of fighting in the Vitez area on April 16, the Muslim mayor of Gacice, Sabahudin Hrustic, taunted the town’s Croat residents by saying to them in effect, "Why are you Croats hanging around here? The III Corps will be here tomorrow” (Kordic-Cerkez trial testimony, Sept. 21, 2000)
20 Mlakic, Kordic-Cerkez trial testimony, Sept. 21, 2000. Witness AP stated that an HVO soldier told her that the 303d Split Brigade and the 125th Varazdin Brigade of the Croatian Army also participated in the Gacice fighting (Kordic-Cerkez trial testimony, Mar. 7, 2000). However, during Witness AP’s cross-examination, Mario Cerkez’s defense counsel noted that Nesad Hrustic had stated that he saw no Croat forces in Gacice. In any event, no such named units ever existed in the Croatian army.
21 Ibid. Kalco stated that Muslims in Stari Vitez purchased ammunition from HVO soldiers. A senior ABiH commander, Mehmed Alagic, boasted in his memoir that the ABiH was able to supply ammunition to the Muslims in Stari Vitez with the help of UNPROFOR (see Alagic et al., Ratna Sjecanja, 28). Former British army captain Lee Whitworth, the BRITBAT liaision officer in the Vitez area from June until November 1993, testified about an incident in which ammunition hidden in bandages was brought into Stari Vitez by a BRITBAT armoured vehicle (Kordic-Cerkez trial testimony, Oct. 18, 1999).

 

Source: HercegBosna.org

Prelude to Civil War in Central Bosnia

Written 08.12.2009. 11:23
The fall of Jajce to the Bosnian Serb army on October 29, 1992, marked the beginning of open conflict between the Muslims and Croats in central Bosnia. Until that time, the two communities had maintained an uneasy alliance against the BSA, but the tension between them grew during the course of 1991-92. The HVO and ABiH squabbled over the distribution of arms seized from the JNA, and there were numerous local incidents of violence by one group against the other. However, only in the last quarter of 1992 did Muslim-Croat disagreements begin to rise to the level of civil war.

In January, 1993, the building animosity transformed into open conflict as the ABiH, strengthened by large numbers ofMuslim refugees and the arrival of the mujahideen, mounted a probing attack against their HVO allies. Muslim extremists, abetted by the Izetbegovic government and fervent nationalists within the ABiH, planned and initiated offensive action against their erstwhile ally in the hope of securing control of the key military industries and lines of communication in central Bosnia ang clearing the region for the resettlement of the thousands of Muslims displaced by the fighting against the BSA elsewhere in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

There is, of course, no "smoking gun" - no operations plan or policy decision document that proves beyond a doubt the ABiH planned and carried out an attack on the Croatian enclaves in central Bosnia with such objectives. The time and place at which the plan was approved, and who proposed and who approved it, remain unknown. Did a written document outlining the plan ever exist? Probably. Does a copy of that document still exist? Probably deep in the ABiH's archives. Will it ever be produced for public scrutiny? Probably not - for rather obvious reasons. On the other hand, neither does such clear evidence exist to support the oft-repeated hypothesis of journalists, UNPROFOR and ECMMpersonnel, and Muslim propagandists that the HVO planned and carried out such an offensive against the Muslims. The answer to the key question of who planned and initiated the conflict between Muslims and Croats in central Bosnia can only be determined by carefully evaluating the thousands of fragments of evidence and fitting them into a coherent pattern showing means, motive, and opportunity in the same way a detective arrives at a viable reconstruction of a crime. The process is tedious, but it produces reliable results. When applied to the events in central Bosnia between November, 1992, and March, 1994, it leads to just one conclusion: only the ABiH had the necessary means, motive, and opportunity; it was, in fact, the ABiH, not the HVO, that developed a strategic offensive plan and attempted to carry it out.

HVO-ABiH Cooperation in the Battle against the Serbs

At the beginning of the conflict with the Bosnian Serbs, the HVO attempted to strengthen coordination in the Muslim and Croat alliance. In mid-April, 1992, the HVO requested that RBiH president Alija Izetbegovic create a joint military headquarters to govern both the HVO and the Muslim-led Territorial Defense forces, but Izetbegovic ignored the request and the issue was never put on the agenda of any meeting of the RBiH Presidency, despite repeated pleas from Croat members of the Presidency. Efforts to improve coordination at the local level also met with Muslim indifference and obstruction. In central Bosnia, the HVO and TO attempted to form a joint military unit to defend against the BSA onslaught. In early 1992, the Vitez Municipality Crisis Staff proposed the establishment of a joint Vitez Brigade made up of a battalion from the HVO and one from the TO. A Croat, Franjo Nakic, would serve as commander, and a Muslim, Sefkija Didic, would be both deputy commander and chief of staff. The rest of the staff would be composed of both HVO and TO officers. However, the Muslims' foot- dragging and quibbling regarding the proposed brigade antagonized the Croats, who increasingly left the Territorial Defense forces for the HVO, which was farther along in its preparations to defend against the Serbs.

Nevertheless, by mid-1992, the hastily assembled and armed HVO and TO forces, with some assistance from the Croatian armed forces, managed to establish a defensive line against the more numerous and much better equipped Bosnian Serb army. However, the BSA had surrounded Sarajevo, the RBiH capital, and the scratch Muslim and Croat forces faced the superior Serb forces on several fronts ringing the newly declared state. The co-operating HVO and Muslim forces faced significant BSA threats in both eastern and western Herzegovina, and a predominantly Muslim army struggled to retain control of several eastern Bosnia towns invested by the BSA. Of principal concern to the commanders of the HVO OZCB and the ABiH III Corps in central Bosnia were an eastern front running from Hadzici north to the Visoko-llijas area; a northern front in the Maglaj-Doboj-Teslic-Tesanj area; and a western front in the area extending from Jajce southward to Donji Vakuf and Bugojno. In all three areas, the RBiH's HVO and Muslim forces struggled to hold back the BSA advance.

The Growth of Muslim-Croat Hostility, March, 1992-January, 1993

Tensions between Muslims and Croats increased steadily throughout the course of 1992 as the two sides vied for political power in the various municipalities in central Bosnia; squabbled over the division of the spoils left by the JNA, which abandoned Bosnia-Herzegovina in May, 1992; sought to gain control over key localities and facilities; and acted to protect their communities from all comers. Despite growing tensions and a number of armed confrontations, the HVO and ABiH continued to cooperate in the defense against the Bosnian Serbs backed by the rump Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro) and the remnants of the JNA. However, three essentially unrelated incidents in late October-just before Jajce fell to the BSA - signalled the coming conflict: the Novi Travnik gas station incident, the assassination of the HVO commander in Travnik, and the Muslim roadblock at Ahmici. These incidents led to a flare-up of small-scale Muslim-Croat fighting throughout the region that was tamped down by an UNPROFOR arranged cease-fire. Tensions and incidents increased substantially following Jajce's fall and the consequent influx of Muslim refugees, many of them armed, into the Lasva-Kozica-Lepenica region. At the same time, the mujahideen presence in central Bosnia began to make itself felt, and the ABiH began to infiltrate armed cadres into the villages and to position regular ABiH units in the Lasva-Kozica-Lepenica valley in preparation for the planned offensive.

Following numerous Muslim-Croat disagreements and confrontations in the Busovaca area, HVO authorities took over the Busovaca municipal government on May 10, blockading the town, demanding the surrender of weapons by the Muslim-dominated TO units, issuing arrest warrants for prominent Muslims, guaranteeing the security and eventual evacuation of JNA elements from the Kaonik area, and mobilizing the Croats in the town. Moreover, the Croat authorities announced that the Busovaca HVO would take over all JNA weapons, equipment, and barracks in the local area. The Muslim-led Bosnian government was incensed by the Croats' seizure of control in Busovaca and on May 12 openly condemned the HVO authorities for not handing control of the town over to the central government on demand.

The tensions in the Busovaca area were intensified by the Muslim failure to hold to the agreed upon plan for the distribution of arms from the former JNA arsenal in the area. Several similar incidents occurred elsewhere, resulting in small fights between Muslims and Croats over the distribution of the spoils resulting from the JNA's withdrawal. There was a Muslim-Croat confrontation at the Bratstvo armaments factory in Novi Travnik on June 18 when HVO elements attempted to prevent Bosnia-Herzegovina's Muslim-led government from removing from the factory arms the government intended to sell abroad. Two months later in August, HVO and Territorial Defense elements forced the turnover of the JNA arsenal at Slimena in Travnik. The arsenal had been mined by the JNA, and while the HVO tried to negotiate a surrender and the removal of the mines, TO elements broke into the factory and exploded them. In the aftermath of the debacle, the TO soldiers gathered up undamaged weapons parts, which they subse-quently reassembled to make whole weapons. One result of the consequent increase in the numbers of weapons in Muslim hands was an increase in confrontations in the area.

Representatives of the various Croat communities in central Bosnia met in Busovaca on September 22 to discuss the situation, particularly the growing tensions between Muslims and Croats resulting from one municipality or the other coming under the exclusive control of either Muslim or Bosnian Croat authorities. The conferees enumerated a number of general observations regarding the situation throughout the region. They noted in particular the need to revive the local economy and speed up preparations for winter in case they were totally cut off from Herzegovina and Croatia. They called for better coordination between HVO military and civilian authorities and uniformity of policy. Complaints were also made regarding the behavior of Muslims who acted ''as if they have an exclusive right to power in B and H and as if they are the only fighters for B and H," and regarding Muslim attempts to enforce their policies through the use of Croatian Defense Forces (HOS) elements. Special concern was aniculated regarding the daily arrival of new Muslim refugees in the area, as well as the increasing , presence of Muslim forces in the various towns while HVO forces were busy holding the lines against the BSA and HVO military authorities were being urged to prepare defense plans in case of confrontations with the Muslims.

In mid-October, three apparently unrelated incidents led to open fighting between Muslims and Croats in central Bosnia. The first of these occurred in the town of Novi Travnik on October 18, and involved a dispute that began at a gas station near HVO headquarters. By mutual agreement, Muslims and Croats were sharing the region's fuel supplies. The conflict apparently broke out when Croats manning the gas station in Novi Travnik refused to provide gasoline to a Muslim Territorial Defense soldier. A squabble began, the Muslim was shot dead, and within minutes HVO and TO forces in Novi Travnik were engaged in a full-scale firefight in the town center. The fighting, led by Refik Lendo on the Muslim side, continued for several days despite the efforts of British UNPROFOR officers to bring it to a halt.

News of the fighting in Novi Travnik spread quickly throughout the region. Both Muslims and Croats erected roadblocks, mobilized local defense forces, and in some areas fired upon each other. Even so, the conflict rermained localized and uncoordinated, the Muslim and Croat forces in each town and village acting according to their own often faulty assessment of the situation. However, the situation worsened two days later when the commander of the HVO brigade in Travnik, Ivica Stojak, was assassinated on October 20 by mujahideen near Medresa, apparently on the orders of Col. Asim Koricic, commander of the 7th Muslim Motorized Brigade.1 From about the time Jajce fell, the newly arrived mujahideen had begun to appear in the Travnik area, and the number of small incidents between Muslims and Croats had risen substantially. Nevertheless, Stojak's assassination may have been personal rather than part of some larger Muslim plot against the HVO in Travnik.

Perhaps the most serious incident of the October outburst was the establishment of a roadblock by Muslim TO forces near the village of Ahmici on the main road through the Lasva Valley. The roadblock was established on October 20, and the TO forces manning it refused to let HVO forces en route to the defense of Jajce pass.2 The TO commander in the Ahmici area, Nijaz Sivro, was young and inexperienced, as was his deputy, Muniz Ahmic. Sivro had gone to the front lines against the Serbs in Visoko just before the roadblock at Ahmici was set up, and Ahmic was entrusted with the task of establishing the roadblock by the "Coordinating Committee for the Protection of Muslims." One Muslim officer characterized the setting up of the barricade as "ill-prepared and disorganized," and the initial confrontation at the Ahmici roadblock resulted in one Muslim soldier killed and several wounded. 'Two days later, October 22, the roadblock was removed without a fight, and HVO forces could again use the Lasva Valley road for mo ing troops to the Serb front. During the course of the altercation, the Muslim TO commander in Vitez told the UNPROFOR's Lt. Cot. Bob Stewart that Muslims had established the roadblock at Ahmici to prevent the HVO from reinforcing their forces then fighting in Novi Travnik. In fact, the establishment of the roadblock had been ordered by the ABiH zone headquarters in Zenica (later HQ, III Corps). 3

After several days of fighting and almost fifty casualties in the Lasva region, officers of the British UNPROFOR unit managed to negotiate a ceasefire on October 21 in the Vitez area that was then extended to Novi Travnik and the rest of the region. The Muslirn-Croat fighting had been widespread, but it appears to have been spontaneous rather than the result of a coordinated action by either side. Although a planned provocation by the Muslims, in and of itself the October 20 roadblock at Ahmici was a minor event. As far as the HVO authorities at the time were concerned, it was not a serious incident. It took on much greater significance, however, after HVO forces assaulted the village on April 16, 1993. Those who wished to portray the HVO as the aggressor in the Muslim-Croat conflict in central Bosnia have painted the October incident as a cause of the April, 1993 events, although the only real connection between the two is that they occurred in approximately the same location: the point at which the village of Ahmici touches the Vitez-Busovaca road at the narrowest part of the Lasva Valley.

One historian has characterized the period from January, 1992, up to the outbreak of Muslim-Croat hostilities in late January, 1993, as one in which "there was some 'pushing and shoving' between Croats and Muslims, and a lack of wholehearted cooperation as each group sought to stabilise and strengthen its own territory."4 Indeed, one can point to numerous small-scale local confrontations between Muslims and Croats in central Bosnia during the course of 1992 designed to gain control over stockpiles of arms, munitions, and other military supplies; to gain control of key facilities or lines of communications; and to test the other side's will and capabilities to resist. Such incidents increased in frequency and intensity after Jajce fell on October 29, 1992, but they do not appear to have been part of a coordinated plan by either party. Indeed, they appear to be random, unconnected, and short-lived episodes resulting from the increasing level of tension and distrust between the two communities in central Bosnia. Even the build up of Muslim forces, the infiltration of armed ABiH soldiers and mujahideen into key villages and towns, and the suggestive positioning of ABiH units in central Bosnia went largely unnoticed by the HVO at the time.5 Only in retrospect do they appear to be part of a pattern of actions taken by the ABiH to prepare for the opening of an all-out Muslim offensive against the Croatian community in the Lasva-Kozica-Lepenica region.

The ABiH Strategic Offensive Plan

Although its author and the date of its creation remain uncertain, events clearly reveal the existence of an ABiH strategic offensive against the HVO in central Bosnia that began in mid-January, 1993, and continued in several phases until the signing of the Washington Agreements in late February, 1994. The strategic objectives of the plan were:

1. To gain control of the north-south lines of communication (LOCs) passing through the Bosnian Croat enclave in central Bosnia, thereby linking the ABiH forces north of the Lasva-Kozica-Lepenica Valleys with those to the south and securing the Muslim lines of communication to the outside world.
2. To gain control of the military industrial facilities in central Bosnia (the SPS explosives factory in Vitez and factories in Travnik and Novi Travnik) or on its periphery (factories in Bugojno, Gomji Vakuf, Prozor, Jablanica, Konjic, and Hadzici, among others) so as to facilitate the arming of the ABiH in the war against the Serbs.
3. To surround the Bosnian Croat enclave in central Bosnia and divide it into smaller pieces that could then be eliminated seriatim, thereby clearing the Croats from central Bosnia and providing a place for Muslim refugees expelled by the Serbs from other areas to settle.

Achieving the third objective would also ensure that the Muslims retained political control of central Bosnia so they could continue to dominate the RBiH's central government. There was probably also an anticipation of a peace agreement that would result in a partition of Bosnia-Herzegovina among the Serbs, Muslims, and Croats, in which case possession of the Lasva-Kozica-Lepenica region would probably be tantamount to its inclusion in the Muslim area under any settlement, regardless of the area's former ethnic composition, a principle that was observed subsequently in areas seized by the Serbs. In fact, the area in question was part of Canton 10 , under the Vance-Owen Peace Plan and was assigned to the Croats, but at the time the Muslim offensive plan was devised and set in motion the issue was still undecided.6 In any event, occupation by the ABiH of the Lasva-Kozica-Lepenica region would probably be cause for revision of the VOPP. In a larger and less sinister context, the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina's infant central government may simply have been eager to exert its authority over such territory as had not already been taken by the Bosnian Serbs. It should also be noted that the Croat enclaves in northern Bosnia posed no threat politically or militarily to the Muslim-led government and were useful for propaganda purposes to show the multiethnic composition and co-operation in the Muslim-led RBiH.

Such a complex and far-reaching plan could only have been worked out in the ABiH General Staff under the direction of Chief of Staff Sefer Halilovic, and further elaborated in Enver Hadzihasanovic's III Corps headquarters. Only they had the resources and expertise to prepare such a plan, and there are some indications that they had considered such a plan much earlier. By the time Jajce fell at the end of October, 1992, the ABiH's logistical situation was near collapse. The Izetbegovic government had failed to induce the United Nations to cancel its arms embargo or to intervene militarily, and, despite Chief of Staff Halilovic's persistent entreaties, had done little to mobilize the Bosnian economy for war. Too weak to seize the arms and equipment it needed from the far more powerful Bosnian Serb army, the ABiH still had sufficient strength to overpower its erstwhile ally, the HVO-at least in the central Bosnia area. Success in such an endeavor would solve two of the most pressing logistical problems. First, it would provide an immediate gain in arms and other equipment, which could be quickly turned against the Serbs. Second, it would open the ABiH's lines of communications through central Bosnia, thereby facilitating the more effective deployment of available ABiH troops, armaments, and supplies, as well as the importation of arms, ammunition, and other vital supplies obtained on the international arms market. Moreover, General Halilovic's associates on the ABiH General Staff had long since identified Kiseljak, Busovaca, Vitez, and Vares as the site for refugee settlements. In the summer of 1992, two of Halilovic's subordinates, Rifat Bilajac and Zicro Suljevic, attended a meeting at SDA headquarters in Sarajevo to discuss the refugee situation. Halilovic relates that they returned to the headquarters infuriated, Bilajac stating angrily:I was informed about everything in the SDA headquarters. There were some 10-12 members of the executive committee present, and when I suggested that refugee settlements should be built in Kiseljak, Busovaca, Vitez and Vares, Behmen tells me nicely: 'It can't be there, as that's Croat national territory.' The other members were silent. Then we quarreled and left the meeting. Well, what are we dying for if this is Croat national territory?"7

As to the question of when such a plan might have been conceived, it is important to note that the ABiH III Corps first openly attacked HVO forces in the Lasva Valley in late January, 1993. A significant amount of time, probably not less than two months, would have been required to assemble and prepare the forces necessary for an offensive on the scale of the January attacks. Thus, the basic plan needed to have been completed no later than November 1, 1992, suggesting that the necessary planning was already in progress even before Jajce fell. It seems likely, therefore, that the concept of the ABiH strategic offensive against the HVO in central Bosnia was developed in the late summer or early fall of 1992 and that the “go-no go" decision was probably made in early November-soon after the fall of Jajce.

The HVO Reaction

While the ABiH was clearly the aggressor in the Muslim-Croat civil war in central Bosnia, the HVO commanders did not sit idly by waiting to be overrun by their more numerous Muslim opponents. Instead they adopted what is known in U.S. military parlance as an "active defense” that is, a defense in which the defender actively and continuously seeks to improve his defensive posture by seizing and controlling key terrain and lines of communication, degrading the enemy's offensive capabilities, and acting aggressively to spoil enemy attacks and keep the enemy off balance.8 To an observer on the ground who did not understand the overall strategic situation-particularly one prone to rash judgments and broad inferences-the HVO's conduct of the active defense might well appear to have been offensive in nature. Yet, the fact is, it was largely reactive and preventive.

Thus, from an HVO perspective the strategic battle was entirely a defensive one, albeit marked by selective use of preemptive spoiling attacks (pre- ventivi), counterattacks, and other offensive actions designed to support the Croat defensive strategy by the conduct of an “active defense" rather than a purely positional defense in the Lasva-Kozica-Lepenica Valleys. Surrounded, heavily outnumbered (by as much as eight or ten to one according to some accounts), and logistically bankrupt, it would have been com- pletely illogical for the Croats to try to mount a systematic campaign to expand the enclave or to ethnically cleanse Muslims from the Lasva Valley, much less from all of the proposed Canton 10. One former HVO officer has said that an HVO commander would have had to be "insane” to have contemplated an offensive against the Muslims given their tenuous manpower, logistics, and full deployment against the Serbs.9 They were barely able to repel the repeated Muslim attacks and were certainly too weak in numbers, arms, and ammunition to attempt a major offensive. Nevertheless, the hard-pressed HVO forces did manage to mount a number of small offensive actions to secure better defensive positions, prevent the Muslims from obtaining their objectives, and to clear their rear areas of troublesome Muslim enclaves. Generally, a clear military necessity can be shown for each of those offensive actions. More commonly, the HVO forces simply took up defensive positions and repelled a series of increasingly heavy Muslim attacks that inexorably whittled away the territory held by the HVO, inflicted casualties, and slowly asphyxiated the Bosnian Croat defenders.

________________________________

1 Ljubas, Kordic-Cerkez trial testimony, May 16, 2000; Filipovic, Kordic-Cerkez trial testimony, Apr 11, 2000.
2 Zeko, Blaskic trial testimony, Sept. 11, 1998.
3 Maj. Sulejman Kalco, Kodic-Cerkez trial testimony, Mar. 7, 2000. Kalco was deputy commander of the Muslim forces in Stari Vitez in 1993. He later retired from the Federation Army.
4 O’Ballance, Civil War in Bosnia, 48
5 Major Zeko, the HQ, OZCB, intelligence officer at the time, noted that although he mentioned to his superiors several times the growing disadvantage of the HVO position in the area due to Muslim infiltration and the positioning of ABiH forces to the rear of HVO units defending the front against the Serbs, there did not appear to be any urgent reaction on the part of the HVO leadership (conversation with author, Split, Aug. 17, 1999)
6 The Vance-Owen Peace Plan canton map was not agreed upon until January 10-12, 1993.
8 Halilovic, Lukava Strategija, 78. See also the comments of journalist Ed Vulliamy regarding the "grand scheme" of Mehmed Alagic, a senior ABiH commander in central Bosnia, for "consolidation of the Muslim triangle in central Bosnia" (Seasons in Hell, 257-58)
8 U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Pub 1-02, 3, defines "active defense" as: "The employment of limited offensive action and counterattacks to deny a contested area or position to the enemy". Indeed, the former commander of OZ Northwest Herzegovina used the term exactly in its American sense to describe the series of small counterattacks and other offensive actions taken by the HVO in the Lasva-Kozica-Lepenica Valleys and elsewhere (Maj. Gen. Zeljko Siljeg, conversation with author, Medjugorje, Aug. 23, 1999)
9 Zeko conversation, Aug. 27, 1999.
 

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