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.9 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 mu-jahideen 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.10

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.11 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.12 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 firefight 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.13 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.14

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.15 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.16 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.17

On April 14, 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 matériel 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, Srbrenica, 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 afternoon of April 15 without substantive results. The senior ABiH representative, Dzemal Merdan, denied any ABiH involvement in the Totic affair and appeared otherwise unresponsive.18 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, 1993.19 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.

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