The ABiH Attack on Gornji Vakuf

While the town of Gornji Vakuf (usually called Uskoplje by Croats) was in the Operative Zone Northwest Herzegovina rather than the OZCB, it was of vital importance to the defenders of the Croat enclaves in central Bosnia inasmuch as it was the southern terminus of the vital Novi Travnik-Gornji Vakuf supply route. Before the conflict in January, 1993, Gornji Vakuf's population included about ten thousand Croats and fourteen thousand Muslims.6 Many of the surrounding villages had a Croat majority, and in the town itself the Croats and Muslims lived in mixed areas. When the Serbs attacked Croatia in 1991, the HVO in Gornji Vakuf started making military preparations, and by the time of the Battle of Kupres in 1992 had formed one HVO company. There were few problems in the town; the Muslims and Croats had parallel governmental and military structures, and the two communities coexisted warily. In August, 1992, the Muslim Green Berets paramilitary group established a headquarters in Gornji Vakuf, and they, rather than Territorial Defense troops, began to patrol the nearby Muslim villages. However, there were no serious incidents between the Muslims and Croats until January 8-10, 1993, when, as a prelude to the ABiH attack on the town, about a hundred Croats were expelled from their homes in the Muslim sections of town. On January 10, the main road was blocked for the first time, and the Muslims refused to allow HVO troops on their way to the BSA front to pass.

On January 13, the 305th and 317th Mountain Brigades of the ABiH III Corps, under the command of V. Agic, attacked the HVO forces in Gornji Vakuf. The attack's apparent objective was to test the mettle of the Croat defenders and, if possible, to cut the road to Novi Travnik, thus sealing central Bosnia off from Herzegovina. The town was defended by elements of the

Ante Starcevic Brigade, a unit subordinate to Brigadier Zeljko Siljeg's OZ Northwest Herzegovina. There were some three hundred HVO fighters in the town and about two thousand in the surrounding area, reinforced by some seventy HVO military policemen and about 150 men of the PPN "Bruno Busic."

Once the conflict began, a front line was established through the center of town, with the area south of the HVO military police headquarters under Muslim control. Following the initial clashes, the Muslims took positions on the surrounding hills, and the local HVO forces, lacking sufficient manpower to hold a continuous line, established a forty-five-kilometer line of strong points on key terrain facing the Muslims holding the surrounding high ground. Among the key positions the HVO held was the pass on the road between Gornji Vakuf and Prozor. A temporary cease-fire was arranged with UNPROFOR assistance on the afternoon of January 13, and the Croats could again use the road, but there continued to be many problems due to the Muslim checkpoints.7

At the time, the OZCB intelligence staff saw the attack on Gornji Vakuf as an isolated "local action" intended to disrupt traffic on the Gornji Vakuf-Novi Travnik road. Only in retrospect was it clear that the Muslims wanted to seal central Bosnia off from Herzegovina and to provoke the HVO into some offensive action to clear their lines of communication, an action that could then be used as a casus belli and proof of Croat perfidy.8 The fighting around Gornji Vakuf subsequently intensified and assumed even greater significance as the ABiH continued its attempts to secure control of the southern end of the vital Gornji Vakuf-Novi Travnik corridor.

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