March 1992January 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 Bosnia 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—signaled 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.2 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.3

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.4 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.5 Two months later, in August, HVO and Territorial Defense elements forced the turnover of the JNA arsenal at Slimena in Travnik.6 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 subsequently 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.7 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 articulated 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.8 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 remained 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.9 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.10 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.11 Two days later, October 22, the roadblock was removed without a fight, and HVO forces could again use the Lasva Valley road for moving troops to the Serb front.12 During the course of the altercation, the Muslim TO commander in Vitez told the UNPROFOR's Lt. Col. Bob Stewart that Muslims had established the roadblock at Ahmici to prevent the HVO from reinforcing their forces then fighting in Novi Travnik.13 In fact, the establishment of the roadblock had been ordered by the ABiH zone headquarters in Zenica (later HQ, III Corps).14

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 Muslim-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.15 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."16 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 buildup 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.17 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.18

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