The February March Pause

With a typical rush to judgment, Lt. Col. Bob Stewart, the UNPROFOR commander in the Lasva Valley, misread the situation on January 25, opining that "both sides were having a go at each other; Croats in Busovaca; Muslims in Kacuni."19 In fact, it was the Muslims who were "having a go" at the Croats in Kacuni, in Busovaca, and in the Kiseljak area. When all was said and done, the HVO and Croat population in the area paid the heaviest toll for the January fighting: the Croat villages of Nezirovici, Besici, Lasva, Dusina, Gusti Grab, Svinjarevo, Behrici, and Gomionica had been attacked and destroyed or occupied by the ABiH, the vital Busovaca-Kiseljak road had been cut at Kacuni, the southern end of the vital Novi Travnik-Gornji Vakuf line of communication was under attack, and more than forty-four HVO soldiers and Croat civilians had been killed and eighty-two wounded.20

The fighting in central Bosnia died down during the last week of January, and a temporary cease-fire was arranged under UNPROFOR and ECMM auspices. However, there continued to be numerous minor incidents as the ABiH consolidated its positions on the heights of the Hum and the Kula overlooking the Busovaca-Kiseljak road, and in the villages of Merdani, Dusina, and Besici. Meanwhile, the HVO, determined not to be surprised again, strengthened its defensive positions in the central Bosnia area and began to monitor ABiH movements more closely. Both sides continued to eye each other warily, and there were frequent violations of the cease-fire agreement as both sides jockeyed for position and advantage.

On January 29, HQ, OZCB, issued a situation report to its subordinate units and higher headquarters noting: "In the course of today the lines of defence have remained unchanged. A 45-kilometer long front has been established. Our defence is positioned and well-entrenched, further entrenchments are being completed, a fire system [i.e.-plan for the employment of artillery and other weapons] has been organised and the situation is under control."21 The report goes on to note numerous violations of the temporary cease-fire by Muslim units; the excellent morale of HVO fighters and their determination to repel "this brutal aggression"; and the fact that "the BH Army, until yesterday our allies, continued their brutal aggression from the municipalities of Kakanj and Visoko" in the Kiseljak area, and also established a checkpoint in the village of Bilalovac that cut off communications with HVO forces in the village of Jelenov Gaj.

On January 30, 1993, ABiH and HVO leaders met in Vitez under the aegis of UNPROFOR, UNHCR, ICRC, and ECMM personnel to discuss a more permanent cease-fire in the central Bosnia area. Dzemal Merdan, deputy commander of the ABiH III Corps, and Franjo Nakic, the OZCB chief of staff, agreed to a cease-fire to begin at 8 a.m., January 31. In his report to the OZCB commander, Colonel Blaskic, who was isolated in Kiseljak, Nakic noted that Colonel Stewart had stated during the meeting that "he did not blame any side for the violation of the cease-fire [that is, the temporary cease-fire arranged earlier], but the reports he received indicated that it was the HVO who were the ones who started it." Nakic also noted the rather one-sided comments at the meeting by the ECMM representative, Jeremy Fleming, who "was full of praise for the 3rd Corps Command," even stating that "They are doing great things for peace."22 It seems clear that both the UNPROFOR and the ECMM had already made up their minds—on the basis of who knows what information—to charge the HVO with initiating the January fighting in central Bosnia. However, under cross-examination in the Blaskic trial, Colonel Stewart confirmed that he had visited the ABiH III Corps headquarters in Zenica on January 25, 1993, and complained to its commander, Enver Hadzihasanovic, that the Muslims had started the conflict then raging in central Bosnia.23

The cease-fire arranged by UNPROFOR went into effect at the agreed upon time, and the situation in the Lasva-Kozica-Lepenica area returned to a semblance of calm as commanders of both HVO and ABiH units sought to enforce the cease-fire and prepare their troops for the next round of the conflict. In early February, international attention focused on Srbrenica and the continuing siege of Sarajevo. Meanwhile, central Bosnia remained relatively peaceful throughout the winter months of February and March as the ABiH assessed the results of its January probing attacks and prepared to launch a full-scale offensive against the HVO in the spring. For its part, the HVO, now alerted to the danger posed by its perfidious ally, began to make its own preparations for defending the Croat population and key facilities in central Bosnia.

On February 1, the commander of UNPROFOR in Bosnia-Herzegovina, French general Philippe Morillon, hosted talks at the Bila school base of the British UNPROFOR battalion attended by Enver Hadzihasanovic, the ABiH III Corps commander, Thiomir Blaskic, the commander of the HVO OZCB, and others to discuss implementing the cease-fire and the withdrawal of external forces from the Busovaca-Kacuni area.24 It was agreed that all such forces should be removed no later than 1 p.m. the next day, and that all routes in the area—particularly the Vitez-Zenica and Kiseljak-Visoko roads—should be opened immediately, with the main barricade blocking the Vitez-Zenica road to be removed by 2 p.m., February 2.

On February 11, the HVO Main Staff issued orders announcing a joint agreement between the chief of the ABiH General Staff, Sefer Halilovic, and the chief of the HVO Main Staff, Milivoj Petkovic, to prevent further "disagreements and conflicts" between the ABiH and the HVO, and "to organise a joint struggle against the aggressor [the BSA]."25 The same order directed the HVO OZCB commander and the ABiH III Corps commander to create a joint commission composed of HVO and ABiH officers, the purpose of which was to supervise and coordinate efforts to minimize Muslim-Croat conflict in the central Bosnia area. The joint commission was to oversee implementation of the cease-fire agreement with respect to the withdrawal of forces, the removal of barricades, the filling in of trenches and bunkers, and the opening of roads to all traffic, as well as the release of detainees and the investigation of incidents should they arise. The existing ABiH-HVO coordinating teams in Gornji Vakuf and Mostar were instructed to carry out the same actions prescribed for the joint commission in central Bosnia, and all commanders were ordered to ensure that lines of communication in their area of responsibility were open and functioning normally.

The HVO OZCB commander and the ABiH III Corps commander subsequently issued orders implementing the joint agreement of the HVO and ABiH chiefs of staff. A series of joint orders issued by the two commanders on February 13 from Kakanj referred to the joint agreement and ordered the withdrawal of units from forward positions by the fourteenth; the opening of roads by the fifteenth; the filling in of trenches and bunkers sited against the HVO by the twentieth; the establishment of coordinated checkpoints and roadblocks with a view to the eventual establishment of joint checkpoints; and the establishment of the joint commission to control and investigate incidents.26

Despite the cease-fire and occasional cooperation with the ABiH in the defense against the Serbs, the HVO forces remained wary and prepared for a resumption of open conflict with the Muslims in central Bosnia. On February 4, Colonel Blaskic issued orders instructing subordinate commanders to strengthen security and control crime, desertion, and unsatisfactory duty performance by HVO personnel, and also directed that the Operative Zone's logistics system be reorganized. On February 13, he issued orders to increase security and prepare defensive positions in anticipation of a possible resumption of hostilities with the Muslims.27 The measures to be taken immediately and completed by February 21 included the preparation of defensive bunkers; the registration and assignment of all conscripts; shooting tests for all civilian and military police units and their formation into operative groups and intervention platoons; additional training and live-fire practice for snipers; control of unidentified individuals moving about the defense lines; the distribution of humanitarian aid to the Croat population; the continued assessment of the situation in cooperation with HVO civilian authorities; increased security and intelligence-gathering activities; and the definition of combat assignments for all Croatian personnel in the region.

The OZCB commander's attention also turned to dealing with an increasing number of troublesome incidents of violence by HVO personnel occasioned by the chaotic conditions and the large number of armed men in rear areas. On February 2, an HVO 4th Military Police Battalion investigative team reported on an incident that occurred between 9:30 and 10 p.m., February 1, in which three explosive devices were thrown at the intersection of the main Travnik-Vitez road near the Impregnacija Company's administration building and the house of Djevad Mujanovic.28 The powerful explosions broke windows in the neighborhood and made a hole in the roof of Mujanovic's garage. The perpetrators were not identified, but they may have been Croats. On February 6, the OZCB commander reminded his subordinate commanders of their duty to carry out earlier orders regarding the suppression of incidents involving murder, the disturbance of public order and peace, threats with firearms, indiscriminate firing in public places, and similar unauthorized actions by HVO personnel.29 Nevertheless, on February 10, a Bosnian Croat from Novi Travnik, Zoran Jukic, was killed by HVO military policemen while resisting arrest after stabbing a Muslim named Sarajlija in the Kod Dure Café in Novi Travnik.30 Another bombing incident occurred at 6:10 p.m. on March 15 in front of the Maks store in downtown Vitez.31 A few nearby cars were damaged, several persons were slightly wounded, and one seriously injured person was taken to the hospital in Travnik. On March 1, the HVO SIS office in Vitez issued an extensive report on the criminal activities of various Croat criminals active in the Travnik, Novi Travnik, Vitez, and Busovaca area. The list included Zarko "Zuti" Andric, the military police chief in Travnik, and Ferdo Gazibaric and Pero "Klempo" Krizanac, both of whom were also from the Travnik area.32 Additional instructions regarding the treatment of HVO personnel engaged in criminal and destructive conduct were issued on March 17 and disseminated to battalion level.33 The measures prescribed to suppress such activity included disarming and removing the uniforms of HVO personnel found committing such acts, as well as their arrest and subjection to disciplinary action.

The Muslims initiated a number of serious incidents and cease-fire violations. On February 4, Lieutenant Colonel Stewart traveled to Katici and Merdani to investigate and stop a fight there at the request of Dario Kordic, the HVO political leader in Busovaca.34 At 9:30 a.m. on February 6, members of the ABiH and Muslim Armed Forces (MOS) arrested seven HVO soldiers in Kruscica.35 Among those making the arrest were an ABiH soldier from Kruscica and three MOS members from Vranjska. The seven HVO soldiers were questioned about HVO positions in Ribnjak and Lovac and released unharmed at 7 p.m. the same day, although their insignia and personal documents were not returned to them. On March 13, the commander of the HVO N. S. Zrinski Brigade in Busovaca issued a letter of protest addressed to the ECMM, the nearby Dutch-Belgian UNPROFOR transport battalion, and HQ, OZCB, claiming that the cease-fire had been broken at 8:40 p.m. on March 12 by an ABiH M48 tank that had fired its machine gun on HVO positions in the village of Kula.36

On the evening of March 16, two HVO soldiers from Travnik were killed at an HVO checkpoint in the village of Dolac on the main Travnik-Vitez road.37 The soldiers, Zoran Matosevic and Ivo Juric, attempted to halt a Lada automobile. The four occupants, probably mujahideen, were heavily armed and got out of the car with their weapons. An argument ensued, and a brief firefight erupted during which Matosevic and Juric were killed and their weapons taken by the car's occupants. Earlier that evening, the same car drove through an HVO checkpoint at Ovnak and its occupants made threatening gestures with their automatic weapons at the personnel manning the HVO checkpoint. A similar incident occurred at 9:40 p.m. on March 28 at an HVO VP checkpoint in the village of Cajdras.38 Two HVO VPs attached to the Jure Francetic Brigade, Bernard Kovacevic and Ivan Laus, were murdered, apparently by members of the ABiH 7th Muslim Motorized Brigade. Two weeks earlier, on March 15, a group of Muslims led by Ferhet Haskic stopped and searched people traveling to Donja Veceriska.39 A tractor belonging to an unknown person—presumably a Croat from Novi Bila—was stopped, the owner mistreated, and the tractor's tires punctured. Haskic was also suspected of throwing an explosive device in the front of the HVO headquarters in Donja Veceriska at 12:55 a.m. on March 16. The ABiH VPs subsequently helped HVO authorities apprehend Haskic.

The only major violation of the January cease-fire in central Bosnia occurred in mid-March, when the ABiH IV Corps's 1st Operational Group attacked north along the Neretvica River toward Fojnica with the objective of seizing control of some twenty Croat villages in the Neretvica Valley and linking up with the ABiH OG Bosanska-Krajina, thereby joining the ABiH III and IV Corps.40 The attack stalled before reaching the Fojnica area, and Croat residents expelled from the area fled to areas still under HVO control—some toward Kiseljak and some toward Herzegovina. A description of this attack as well as an agreement between the ABiH and RBiH Ministry of the Interior regarding military operations against the HVO was issued March 20.41

The Muslim-Croat cease-fire in central Bosnia held through the first weeks of April despite numerous minor incidents, endemic lawlessness, and the organized ABiH offensive in the Neretvica Valley aimed at Fojnica. Although apparently random and probably initiated by extremist individuals or lower-level commanders, some of the more serious incidents suggest a pattern of intelligence gathering by the ABiH, the clandestine movement of Muslim forces throughout the region, and provocations by mujahideen and other Muslim extremists, all of which may have been continuations of the probing action initiated by the ABiH III Corps in January and preparation for the all-out Muslim offensive that began on April 15-16, 1993.

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