Having successfully attacked and "cleansed" the HVO troops and Bosnian Croat civilians from Travnik and most of the Novi Travnik area in early June 1993, the Muslim-led ABiH turned its attention northward hoping to catch the isolated Bosnian Croat community in the Tesanj-Maglaj salient off guard. On June 24, the ABiH III Corps launched an attack on the town of Zepce and other HVO positions at the base of the salient.10 The Muslim assessment of the weakness of the Croat defenders of Zepce proved to be ill founded, however, and their attack met stiff resistance and ultimately failed. The Bosnian Croat enclaves in the Tesanj-Maglaj salient thus survived until the signing of the Washington agreements in March, 1994.
The town of Zepce lies on the north (left) bank of the River Bosna about forty-five kilometers northeast of Zenica and some seventy kilometers northwest of Sarajevo. Until the municipal boundaries in the area were gerrymandered by the Communist government in 1953, Zepce's population was two-thirds ethnic Croat. The 1991 census counted 22,966 inhabitants in the municipality of Zepce, of whom 10,820 were Muslim. In the town itself, the population in 1991 totaled 5,571, of whom 3,367 were Muslim. The major road passing through Zepce from Zenica (to the southwest) to Doboj (to the northeast) was an important line of communication for both the ABiH and HVO forces manning the lines against the Bosnian Serb Army in the Tesanj-Maglaj salient inasmuch as it was the only resupply route available in the area.
The Serbian-JNA attack on the Republic of Croatia in 1991 caused great anxiety amongst Bosnian Croat residents in the Zepce area, but the Muslimled government in Sarajevo appeared to ignore the situation. In the face of the RBiH government's inactivity, the Bosnian Croats in Zepce began organizing for defense in May, 1991, and the HVO was formed there on April 8, 1992. Muslim citizens in the Zepce area were invited to participate with the HVO in efforts to form a joint defense against the Serbs, but they persistently refused to cooperate. The local Muslim leaders seemed willing enough, but ABiH forces in the Zepce area were controlled by much more radical elements from Zenica. The HVO subsequently assumed the bulk of the defense against BSA attacks in 1992, including taking over the defense of Maglaj when Muslim authorities asked them to do so.
Although relations between the two organizations were never cordial, the ABiH refrained from direct attacks on the HVO in the Zepce area until the summer of 1992 primarily because it was the mainstay of the common defense against the BSA in the region. However, Muslim attitudes toward their Croat neighbors had hardened by that summer. The first real clash between the two communities in Zepce occurred in September, when Muslim troops were sent to take down a Croat flag in the town while all of the HVO soldiers were on the front lines in Maglaj. The Muslims were disarmed by
Croat reserve police officers. The worst that could be said about HVO forces in Zepce is that they held loud training exercises on Fridays and took control of several buildings in the town, including the Cultural Center, which housed the HVO 111xp Brigade's headquarters, and the Hotel Balkans, which became the HVO military police headquarters after the 111xp Brigade HQ moved into the Cultural Center. There was little communication or cooperation between the Muslim and Croat communities in Zepce by the fall of 1992.
When the ABiH began making probing attacks in the Lasva Valley in January, 1993, the HVO started entrenching in Zepce and on the heights of Visoka Rudia and Suhi Kriz, positions that commanded the Muslim villages of Ozimica and Golubinja. The entrenchment activity intensified in early June, and by June 24, the Croat residents of predominantly Muslim villages in the Zepce area had been evacuated to predominantly Croat villages.11 This was done, of course, to ensure their safety in the event of a Muslim attack, which was expected momentarily.
The situation worsened in the spring of 1993 with the arrival of Refik Lendo to assume command of the ABiH's Operative Group "Bosna" in Za-vidovici. Lendo, a radical Muslim from the Travnik area, began replacing the ABiH brigade commanders in the area with men more attuned to his views, the local commanders being altogether too cooperative with the HVO in his opinion.12 Meanwhile, Lendo ordered his subordinates to prepare for an offensive against the HVO in the Zepce-Zavidovici-Novi Seher area. Hoping to reduce tensions, HVO officials met with the commander of the ABiH 319th Mountain Brigade, but they were unsuccessful.
On April 18, the ABiH III Corps cleared HVO forces and many Bosnian Croat civilians from the municipality of Zenica and cut the road to Zepce, thereby isolating the HVO forces and Croat civilians in the Tesanj-Maglaj salient. Surrounded by hostile Muslim forces, the Croats in Zepce had only one option for communicating with the outside world: through territory held by the Bosnian Serbs. The HVO thus opened negotiations with the Serbs, who for their own reasons were willing to cooperate.13 The Bosnian Croats in Zepce were not eager to deal with the Serbs, but they had no other choice. A cease-fire between the Serbs and Croats in the Zepce area was announced on June 14.
The UNPROFOR authorities were warned of the coming attack on several occasions. On June 23, BRITBAT officers visited the Zepce and Zavi-dovici areas and met with Nikola Jozinovic, commander of the HVO 111xp Brigade, who—not for the first time—claimed that the ABiH was planning to attack HVO forces in the area.14 Jozinovic also claimed that ABiH troops were assembling for the offensive in two areas: elements of the 314th and 303d Mountain Brigades and the 7th Muslim Motorized Brigade in the villages of Begov Han and Zeljezno Polje, and elements of the 309th Mountain Brigade in the villages of Kamenica and Mitrovici. The BRITBAT subsequently confirmed the presence of 150 soldiers from the 309th Brigade in
Kamenica and elements of the 303d and 314th Brigades southwest of Zepce, as well as a number of soldiers from the 306th Brigade in Cardak.15 After the fighting in Zepce started, BRITBAT authorities commented: "At present it is not clear who was the initiator of the fighting but the balance of probability would suggest that it was the BIH who were responsible. The presence of the 314th Bde soldiers, normally based in Zenica, the number of 309th Bde soldiers (Kakanj) observed on 23 June in Kamenica and the locally dominant position of the BIH all suggest this."16
The HVO and ABiH forces normally stationed in the Zepce area were generally balanced. The HVO 3d Operative Group, commanded by Ivo Lozancic from his headquarters in Zepce, consisted of the 110th Brigade, commanded by Nikola Antunovic, at Usora and the 111xp Brigade, commanded by Nikola Jozinovic, at Zepce. The total number of HVO troops in the region was approximately seven thousand, with about two thousand of them in the immediate Zepce area. In addition to being heavily outnumbered by the Muslims, the HVO forces had three problems: their territory was not contiguous; they had no centralized logistics system; and they lacked adequate communications. Nevertheless, the HVO forces were somewhat better armed than the Muslims and held the bulk of the lines against the BSA, with resulting heavy casualties.17
Zepce became part of the ABiH III Corps in February, 1993, and was assigned to Refik Lendo's OG Bosna, headquartered in Zavidovici. The two ABiH brigades native to the area were Galib Dervisic's 319th Mountain Brigade in Zepce, and Ismet Mammagic's 318th Mountain Brigade in Zavidovici. Each brigade had some twenty-five hundred to three thousand men, but Muslim witnesses reported that most were deployed on the front lines and only about two hundred were in Zepce.
Regular ABiH forces in the Zepce area were augmented by at least two of Narcis Drocic's Green Beret platoons with thirty men each. There were also three Muslim Territorial Defense companies in Zepce, the members of which manned ABiH checkpoints in the town. Like the HVO, the ABiH forces native to the Zepce-Zavidovici area existed in isolated pockets, were poorly coordinated, and lacked good logistical support.
In order to attack Zepce and Zavidovici, the ABiH was obliged to move additional forces into the area. The headquarters of British forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina subsequently identified the ABiH brigades operating in the Tesanj-Maglaj salient as of June 28, 1993, as elements of the 301st Mechanized Brigade, 303d and 314th Mountain Brigades, and 7th Muslim Motorized Brigade from Zenica; the 309th Mountain Brigade from Kakanj; the 318th Mountain Brigade from Zavidovici; the 319th Mountain Brigade from Zepce; and the 201st Mountain Brigade from Maglaj.18 The introduction of ABiH forces from outside the Zepce-Zavidovici area was a clear indication of the ABiH III Corps commander's aggressive intent, the more so in that several of the "outside" units were known to have been used previously for assault purposes in the Lasva Valley (to wit, the 301st, 303d,
309th, and 7th Muslim Brigades). The sudden appearance of these offensive forces in the Zepce area was foreshadowed by Gen. Stjepan Siber of the ABiH General Headquarters attempting to negotiate with Ivo Lozancic of the HVO 3d OG on May 30 to allow a 160-man mobile ABiH unit to enter Zepce. Lozancic refused to permit the stationing of the entire unit in Zepce, and half the detachment subsequently went to Begov Han, fourteen kilometers from Zepce, while the remainder stayed at the Nova Trgovina warehouses on the eastern edge of the town.
Saint Ivo's Day—June 24, 1993—was a Croat holiday, and most of the Bosnian Croats in Zepce were preparing to go to mass when the blow forecast by Ivo Lozancic was struck without warning.19 In fact, the first burst of fighting occurred on the evening of June 23, when mujahideen advanced from Zeljezno Polje on the Croat village of Dolubina. The following morning, elements of five Muslim brigades—approximately 12,500 men—advancing in two columns from the southwest (Zenica) and the southeast (Kakanj) opened the main attack north of Brezovo Polje and soon surrounded Zepce. The Muslim forces occupied the high ground west, south, and east of Zepce, and over the next few days the Croat residents of the Muslim-dominated area on the south bank of the Bosna River fled to Croat-held areas. In Zepce itself, firing broke out at approximately 9:15 a.m. as ABiH mortars and artillery opened up on the town and Muslim Green Berets surrounded the HVO military police headquarters in the Hotel Balkans.20
On June 25, and again on June 26, the BRITBAT reported that HVO sources were claiming that Zepce had been attacked by the ABiH from the direction of Zeljezno Polje (that is, from the direction of Zenica) and that the fighting in the area had been sparked by the HVO's refusal to surrender in Novi Seher.21 Inasmuch as the town was surrounded and the Muslims were firing into it from positions on the heights, the HVO forces thought it was necessary to clear the town. The resulting fight lasted six days and was very bitter, with both sides shelling their opponent's positions in the town. The HVO did, however, leave the pedestrian bridge over the Bosna clear for civilians to use to escape the fighting. Meanwhile, BRITBAT patrols reported fighting in the Zepce area at 9:30 a.m. on June 24, with smoke rising from the town and small-caliber mortar fire coming from the eastern end of the town. At 2 p.m., BRITBAT patrols reported that Zepce was under mortar and heavy machine-gun fire from the vicinity of the village of Ljubana, and that a number of buildings were on fire, including a large apartment complex that was totally engulfed in flames.22 The BRITBAT also reported that as of 6:30 p.m. there were obvious tensions on the route between Zenica and Zepce with the number of checkpoints having been doubled and the manning doubled as well.
On June 26, COMBRITFOR reported that the fighting in Zepce continued, with heavy mortar fire being directed into the town from ABiH positions near the village of Golubinja and elsewhere to the west. The HVO headquarters in town had been extensively damaged, a large number of buildings around it were on fire, and soldiers leaving the town claimed that bitter street fighting was taking place. On June 27, the BRITBAT reported that soldiers in the area stated that the HVO and ABiH each controlled 50 percent of Zepce and that the fighting was less intense than before.23 The BRITBAT also reported a conversation on June 27 with the deputy commander of the ABiH III Corps, Dzemal Merdan, who claimed that ABiH forces were preparing to blockade Zepce in order to suppress the HVO. Merdan claimed this tactic would subsequently be employed on Tesanj, Maglaj, Novi Seher, and Zavidovici.
Both sides shelled the town relentlessly during the battle. The ABiH units from outside Zepce held the high ground west, south, and east of Zepce but did not come down into the town itself, leaving the bitter fighting there to local Muslim forces. One witness claimed that the town was shelled continuously for seven days (presumably by the HVO) and that 80 percent of the casualties were Muslim, while not a single bullet hit the Varos area near the river, a Croat part of town.24 The inaccuracy of both the ABiH's and the HVO's artillery fire make Dedovic's claim incredible. In fact, the destruction of the town caused by the fighting was severe, perhaps half of its buildings having been burned during the fight. The human toll on both sides was high as well, both for civilians and for military personnel.
Eventually, the HVO gained the upper hand and succeeded in pushing the Muslims to the river's south bank in the area known as Papratnica. By June 30, the HVO had cleared most of the Bosna River's west bank and the western portion of Zepce of Muslim attackers. The battle ended on June 30 with the surrender of the ABiH 305th and 319th Brigades. Galib Dervisic, the ABiH commander, had been called upon to surrender on June 25 but had refused. As the shelling intensified on June 26, the HVO slowly gained control of the town, and Muslim ammunition began to run low. Dervisic negotiated surrender terms with Bozedar Tomic on the thirtieth, agreeing to surrender the bulk of his forces in town at 5 p.m. However, some Muslim fighters held out in the eastern part of town and across the river in the Pri-jeko area. The Muslim forces across the river from Zepce managed to held out until September, when the HVO pushed them back from the bank toward Zenica and Kakanj, thus freeing Zepce from continued direct threat. Elements of the Green Berets in the Zenicki Put area refused Dervisic's surrender order and resisted until the next day, July 1, when they were finally forced to surrender to the HVO. Another group of 105 ABiH fighters escaped over the River Kranjace on June 18, refused Dervisic's surrender order, and held out in Zenicki Put until July 1, when they surrendered and were sent to the "silos."
Several BSA tanks, perhaps "borrowed" by the HVO, were positioned around town on June 29 and began firing on Muslim positions the next day. One eyewitness claimed he saw seventeen Serb tanks in the area while on his way to the HVO command post at Tatarbudzak, four or five kilometers from Zepce, on July 1.25 The reports of BSA tanks in Novi Seher and moving toward Maglaj seemed to genuinely worry ABiH III Corps leaders, who on the night of June 28-29 and again the next day complained to BRITBAT officers about what they concluded was active collusion between the BSA and the HVO in the Maglaj-Zepce-Zavidovici-Novi Seher area, noting that Maglaj itself was "being attacked by BSA artillery from the east and by HVO infantry from the west.26
Following the ABiH surrender on June 30, approximately four thousand to five thousand Muslim civilians were detained by the HVO for seven to ten days in the area of the Nova Trogvina company warehouses under conditions that were unsatisfactory but comparable to those in which Croat civilians were detained by the ABiH elsewhere.27 Once released, many of the civilians went to the nearby village of Kiseljak (not to be confused with the town of Kiseljak) by way of Perovic. Captured ABiH military personnel were also detained at the Rade Kondic school, the elementary school in Perkovic Han, and, most notably, at the so-called silos. The conditions under which they were held were horrific, but they were no worse than those endured by HVO prisoners held by the ABiH in other areas. The Green Berets and the 105 ABiH soldiers who surrendered at Zenicki Put on July 1 appear to have been singled out for especially harsh treatment. Many of the military prisoners were later sent to Mostar when the local HVO commander pleaded that he could not maintain them properly.
The Muslim attack on Zepce was accompanied by simultaneous attacks on Zavidovici and Novi Seher, although Tesanj and Maglaj remained quiet.28 Elements of the HVO 111xp Brigade in Zavidovici were surrounded by ABiH troops but held their positions on the north bank of the Bosna for a week before withdrawing over the mountain toward Zepce, taking the Croat civilians with them. They then established a line against the ABiH forces attacking Zepce. Some 1,000 Croat residents stayed in Zavidovici, but only 300-500 remained by the end of the conflict. Croat villagers from other locations fled as well: 800 from Lovnica, 500 from Dijacic, and 300 from Debelo Brdo. There were about 350 Croat casualties in Zavidovici itself, many of them civilians.
According to HVO sources, the Muslim-Croat conflict in the Zepce area began with the HVO refusal to surrender to the ABiH in Novi Seher.29 At 7:40 p.m. on June 24, the BRITBAT reported that Novi Seher was "in flames." However, the major fighting there appears to have taken place on the morning of June 25, although the BRITBAT reported continuing small-arms fire and some shelling during the afternoon.30 The BRITBAT also reported that Novi Seher's streets appeared to be deserted and several houses were on fire, with HVO forces dug in around their headquarters in the southern part of town. The ABiH HQ in town had been evacuated, and Muslims were manning positions in the northern part of town. The HVO apparently controlled the villages of Lukici, Radjcici, Grabovica, Ponijevo, and Takal, and the former HVO headquarters was still intact with Marko Zelic in command. The front line ran from east to west through the center of town, and the ABiH 201st Brigade controlled the town center and the nearby villages of Strupina, Domislica, Cobe, and Kopice. Following the two-day fight for Novi Seher, the HVO area around the town was very compact, and HVO forces received supplies through the Serb lines. The HVO position was not continuous and consisted primarily of positions in front of the key villages.
The ABiH offensive against the HVO in the Zepce-Zavidovici area appears to have been initiated by ABiH III Corps rather than II Corps, which British UNPROFOR sources judged to be less concerned with promoting tensions with the HVO, noting that: "this interfactional fighting was probably started with the blessing of the commander, III Corps BIH. Whether it indicates a wider agenda, which might spread to II Corps BIH is hard to assess."31 Both Enver Hadzihasanovic, the ABiH commander, and deputy commander Dzemal Merdan told British UNPROFOR officers that the II Corps did not "understand what the HVO was capable of" and thus had not acted aggressively against it. The COMBRITFOR assessment of the radical nature of the ABiH III Corps command was that "the border between 2 and 3 Corps is almost like crossing into a different country. In the Tuzla area there is a real sense of common purpose with Muslims, Croats, and Serbs serving in the same units whether BIH or HVO. In the north people join the formation nearest their home regardless of whether it is BIH or HVO. The people in this area are as unable as we are to explain the ethnic violence which is taking place in Central Bosnia."32 Moreover, COMBRITFOR noted that this "gulf in understanding" also appeared to exist between the radical leaders of the ABiH III Corps and the RBiH government in Sarajevo.33
When queried by the BRITBAT commander on June 24, as to the causes of the fighting between Muslim and Croat forces in the Zepce area, the ABiH III Corps commander replied, "it was purely a case of the 'problems' of the Lasva Valley spreading north."34 Indeed, it was; and Hadzihasanovic was himself the party responsible for their spread. On June 26, COMBRITFOR reported that a BRITBAT assessment noted that the reasons for the fighting throughout the area are still unconfirmed but the BIH are increasingly looking like the aggressors. If this is proven it might be regarded as a further stage in the perceived strategy of Muslim "land grab." The story of the "muja-hadeen" involvement as the precursor has been noted in a number of areas. It would appear, however, that the capacity for escalation was either unforeseen or underestimated. At present, Tesanj is the only population centre unaffected and there must be a grave danger that the troubles will spread further and seriously compromise the line against the Serbs. Unlike the Travnik area, Maglaj and Zavidovici have traditionally been areas of Serb interest and they are unlikely to miss any available opportunity. . . . This HQ assesses that the BIH took any escalation of the conflict with the HVO into consideration during their planning of the operation. It is assessed that the BIH want the HVO out of the 3 Corps area and think that they can achieve this and, at the same time, maintain the integrity of the [common front line] with the BSA in the Maglaj finger.35
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