The ABiH Attack in the Kiseljak Area

The April, 1993, Muslim attack in the Kiseljak area also developed much as Ivica Zeko, the OZCB intelligence officer, had predicted almost a month earlier. The HQ, OZCB, preparatory order issued at 10 a.m. on April 15 accurately forecast the details of the Muslim operational plan.44 As expected, the ABiH focused its April attack on occupying the BM 661-Svinjarevo-Mladenovac-Gomionica area, cutting the Busovaca-Kiseljak road at the Foj-nica intersection just west of Gomionica, and linking up with Muslim forces in the Visnjica area, thereby dividing the already isolated Kiseljak enclave into two parts and effectively cutting off the HVO forces in Fojnica. The ABiH offensive against Kiseljak was thus restricted to a single axis of advance from the northwest, even though ABiH forces to the northeast, east, and south of the Kiseljak enclave had been active earlier. The ABiH IV Corps was committed to the Muslim spring offensive against the HVO in the Neretva Valley and was thus unable to mount a simultaneous assault from Tarcin toward the Kresevo-Fojnica-Kiseljak area. The ABiH I Corps units to the northeast and east of Kiseljak remained heavily engaged against the Bosnian Serb Army forces surrounding Sarajevo and were thus also unavailable for the offensive in the Kiseljak area.

Having failed to cut the Busovaca-Kiseljak road at the Fojnica junction in January, despite repeated bloody assaults, the Muslim forces consolidated and reinforced their positions in the villages northeast of the road (Svinjarevo, Behrici, and Gomionica) during the uneasy cease-fire in February and early April.45 The ABiH military police units from Visoko were brought in, and there was a steady stream of Muslim-Croat confrontations leading up to the renewal of active combat operations in mid-April. Muslim forces identified in the area north and northeast of Kiseljak in the December, 1992, through January, 1993, period included elements of the 302d Motorized Brigade from Visoko (command post near Dautovci); the 1st Battalion, 303d Mountain Brigade (command post southeast of Dautovci); the 1st and 2d Battalions, 17th Krajina Mountain Brigade; and Territorial Defense forces from the Kiseljak area.46 As far as can be determined, the same forces remained in place through mid-April.

The ABiH forces deployed in the area of Svinjarevo and Gomionica to the northeast of the Busovaca-Kiseljak road constituted the most significant threat to the Croats in Kiseljak. The forces in that area also posed a potential threat to the HVO defense of Busovaca to the northwest. Accordingly, at 9:10 a.m., April 17, under heavy ABiH attack in the Vitez area, the OZCB commander ordered the Ban Josip Jelacic Brigade commander in Kiseljak to prepare for a preemptive attack on Muslim positions around Gomionica. He was further ordered to blockade Visnjica and other villages that could be used by the ABiH to launch an attack; to take control of Gomionica and Svinjarevo following a strong artillery and mortar preparation, the main attack to be made from Sikulje and Hadrovci; and reinforce the HVO positions

Kiseljak 1993
Map 4. The Kiseljak Area. Map by Bill Nelson.

at Badnje and Pobrdje with one company each. Finally, the brigade commander was enjoined to "keep in mind that the lives of the Croats in the region of Lasva depend upon your mission. This region could become a tomb for all of us if you show a lack of resolution."47

Shortly before midnight on April 17, Colonel Blaskic gave final, detailed orders to the Jelacic Brigade for the proposed preemptive attack.48 The brigade was ordered to hold Zavrtaljka firmly and, following preparation of the objective area with mortar fire, to attack and capture Gomionica and Svinjarevo then regroup and conduct an artillery preparation for continuation of the attack to capture Bilalovac. HVO forces in the Fojnica area were assigned the mission of protecting the brigade's left flank and launching an attack on the hamlet of Dusina (south of Fojnica) or a breakthrough toward Sebesic. The operation was set to commence at 5:30 a.m., April 18.

At 1:40 a.m. on the eighteenth, the OZCB commander issued orders directly to the commander of the HVO battalion in Fojnica, instructing him to carry out the planned "combat operation" toward either Dusina or toward Sebesic, the purpose of which was to relieve pressure on the HVO defenders of Busovaca and gain control over the no-man's-land between the Kiseljak and Busovaca areas of operations.49 Despite being issued in the most forceful terms and essential to counteract the heavy Muslim attacks in the Vitez and Busovaca areas, Colonel Blaskic's orders were not obeyed by Stjepan Tuka, commander of the Ban Jelacic Brigade's 3d (Fojnica) Battalion, who with the support of the civilian authorities in Fojnica refused to execute the operations ordered and thereby provoked a crisis in the HVO command system.

Before the HVO attack ordered by Colonel Blaskic on April 17 to clear the Gomionica/Svinjarevo area could be mounted, the ABiH forces launched an attack of their own from the Svinjarevo-Gomionica area.50 At about 6 a.m. on Sunday, April 18, the battle for Gomionica—temporarily suspended in January—resumed when ABiH military police advanced from the village and made a frontal assault across the Busovaca-Kiseljak road.51 The Muslim assault was brought to a halt by ten, at which time the Jelacic Brigade headquarters reported that "our forces which are fulfilling their tasks in the village of Gomionica are being attacked."52 The same hurried situation report noted that other assigned tasks were being accomplished: the Muslim inhabitants of the villages of Jehovac, Gromiljak, Mlava, and Palez had been disarmed. The report also noted that "we have received zip from Fojnica bojna [battalion]."53 At 4:45 p.m., Mijo Bozic, the Jelacic Brigade commander, reported that the conflict had spread to the villages of Rotilj, Visnjica, Doci, Hercezi, and Brestovsko, and that the HVO had lost Zavrtaljka and failed to push the Muslim forces out of Gomionica—although they had advanced about a kilometer on either side of the village.54 Heavy fighting was still in progress, and the HVO forces reported three KIA, four WIA, and an unknown number of missing.

At 2 a.m. on April 19, Jelacic Brigade headquarters reported that heavy fighting continued in the Gomionica area as the Muslim forces reinforced their lines following an unsuccessful "counterattack"—a renewed attack launched after the HVO halted their initial attack.55 There was a lull in the fighting elsewhere in the Kiseljak area. The stalemate around Gomionica continued on April 19 and 20, with neither side able to advance. Despite several fevered messages from the OZCB commander referring to the massacre of Croats in Zenica and the immanent destruction of all HVO forces in central Bosnia, the Jelacic Brigade was unable to move forward in the Gomionica area until April 21, when it launched a counterattack that drove the ABiH forces back some five hundred meters north of the Busovaca-Kiseljak road.56 The lines stabilized once more, and would remain there for some time to come. The forces engaged in the Gomionica area from April 18-21 included about seven hundred ABiH soldiers and about 420 HVO troops. The HVO forces reported three KIA and thirty WIA, and estimated the Muslims had suffered some 266 casualties.

Having halted the ABiH assault at Gomionica on April 18, the HVO began to clean up the Muslim salient west of the Busovaca-Kiseljak road even before their successful counterattack on April 21. The Muslims simultaneously evacuated the entire salient. About 80 percent of the Muslim civilians in the area left on their own volition and moved to Visoko, Fojnica, and Kresevo. The Muslims in Doci and Hercezi surrendered their weapons on April 19, and the HVO arrested 120 people in Brezovena and captured two 82-mm mortars and one 120-mm mortar. They also found five 120-mm, two 82-mm, and two 60-mm mortars, as well as three 60-mm mortars ABiH troops had thrown away in a stream. The HVO took Visnjica and Polje Visnjica on April 20, and evacuated almost all of the Muslim women and children there. It is perhaps worth noting that when Fojnica fell to the Muslims on July 10, 1993, and the Croats were expelled, many of them went over the mountains to Visnjica and occupied empty Muslim houses there.

The vigorous clearing actions in the villages on both sides of the Busovaca-Kiseljak road generated a fairly large number of Muslim refugees (some 1,038 went to the Visoko area alone before April 28), and the HVO actions were subsequently characterized by ECMM teams in the area as "ethnic cleansing."57 Undeniably, Muslim houses were burned and Muslim civilians killed in the course of clearing armed Muslim defenders from positions in the various villages in the area of operations north and south of the Busovaca-Kiseljak road. However, neither the destruction nor the loss of life was disproportionate to the necessity of eliminating active centers of resistance in the HVO rear areas. Moreover, the ECMM reports appear to be based solely on Muslim allegations and quick visits to various Muslim villages. The ECMM monitors apparently did not investigate claims of destruction in Croat villages in the area; at least they did not comment on such claims. The British UNPROFOR observers appear in this case to have been more balanced in their judgments. On April 23, elements of the 9/12th Lancers conducted a detailed reconnaissance northeast of Kiseljak around the villages of Gromiljak, Svinjarevo, and Behrici. Fighting was still going on along the ridgeline between the villages of Svinjarevo and Podastinje, and houses were burning in Behrici and Gomionica. However, the British UNPROFOR intelligence analyst reported: "although the callsigns reported Croat/Muslim clashes there appears to be no evidence of ethnic cleansing."58

The village of Rotilj appears to have been of special concern to the ECMM monitors. Following the failed ABiH assault at Gomionica on April 18, some seventy ABiH soldiers occupied Rotilj.59 The HVO offered to accept the surrender of the Muslim weapons but was told to "buzz off" by the Muslim commander, who did not want to surrender. The HVO subsequently took the village in a one-day fight on the eighteenth. The ECMM report on the affair alleges that Rotilj was attacked from 3 p.m. on April 18 to noon on April 19 (a twenty-one-hour fight!) by some twenty masked soldiers "alleged to be HVO," who supposedly destroyed all the Muslim houses (nineteen of them) in the west end of village as well as other structures. As usual, the ECMM team reported that none of the Croat houses were damaged. The Muslim men in the village were reportedly arrested and jailed in the Kiseljak HVO prison, and most of the inhabitants evacuated to the older part of town—except for seven persons who were "savagely executed." On April 25, the ECMM reported some six hundred people were in the southwest part of the village (including about one hundred to 150 refugees from Visoko) surrounded by the HVO.60 They were still there on May 22. Apparently the HVO had a rather glacial ethnic-cleansing program.

The Muslim offensive in the Kiseljak area seems to have been launched in order to gain control of the important Visoko-Fojnica line of communications, divide the Kiseljak enclave into several smaller pieces and isolate the various Croat villages, and, ultimately, to open the area to settlement by Muslim refugees from eastern Bosnia and the Krajina. The ABiH was unable to achieve any of those objectives during the April fighting in the Kiseljak area, but it would renew its efforts in the months to come.

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