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Operations, September 1993 - February 1994


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

Continuation of the ABiH Offensive in the Vitez-Busovaca Area


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Events in the Vares Area


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

Stupni Do


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

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

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

Criminal Behavior


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

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

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

The Fall of Vares


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

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

The Situation at the End of 1993


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

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

______________________

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

 

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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