The Active Defense in the Vitez Area

In the early morning hours of April 15 the ABiH launched an attack on HVO positions on Mount Kuber north of Busovaca that resulted in three HVO soldiers killed in action (KIA).20 In view of the increase in incidents, the kidnapping of the four HVO personnel in Novi Travnik and of Zivko Totic, and the ABiH attack on Mount Kuber, Col. Tihomir Blaskic, the commander of Operative Zone Central Bosnia, made an estimate of the situation and issued a series of orders on April 15 preparing his forces for defensive action. The HVO forces in the immediate area of Vitez were very limited.21 The Viteska Brigade was still in the process of being formed. Only

Vitez Busovaca
Map 2. The Vitez Area. Map by Bill Nelson.

the 1st Battalion (formerly the Stjepan Tomasevic Brigade's 2d Battalion) was even partially organized, and it had a maximum potential of only about 270 men. In fact, on April 16 the Viteska Brigade was able to deploy only about 80 men. Another sixty men were on shift duty on the Turbe front against the BSA, and an additional 50 were at the hotel in Kruscica preparing to relieve the shift then at the front. The additional forces available to Colonel Blaskic included an unknown, but relatively small, number of HVO village guards; the Vitezovi PPN (about 120 men); the Tvrtko II PPN (probably less than 30 men); and a portion of the 4th Military Police Battalion (probably less than 100 men).22 The Vitezovi, the "Tvrktovici," and the military policemen constituted the best organized, best equipped, and most experienced combat forces available to the OZCB commander in the Vitez area, and thus naturally were deployed to face the greatest perceived threats.

At 10 a.m. on the fifteenth, the 4th Military Police Battalion was ordered to increase security of the HQ, OZCB, command post, to ensure that the Travnik-Vitez-Busovaca road was open to all traffic, and to expect "a rather strong attack by the Muslim extremist forces from the direction of the villages Nadioci-Ahmici-Sivrino-Pirici."23 The Vitezovi were assigned responsibility for blockading the Muslim forces in Stari Vitez and preventing an attack from Stari Vitez toward the OZCB headquarters. The Viteska Brigade's 1st Battalion was assigned the mission of blocking any ABiH advance on Vitez from the Kruscica-Vranjska area.24 In view of the fact that the Viteska Brigade was not yet fully operational, Mario Cerkez, the brigade commander, deployed his remaining forces in a sector defense arrangement with several small combat groups assigned to each sector.25 All combat forces in the OZCB were ordered to carry out the defense of their assigned zones of responsibility to "prevent the extremist Muslim forces from effecting open cleansing of the territory, the genocide over the Croatian people, and the realization of their goals."26

During the course of the day, Colonel Blaskic received additional information regarding a possible attack by the ABiH and accelerated the preparation and positioning of his available forces.27 At 3:45 p.m., he issued orders to all subordinate units to take additional measures to increase combat readiness, prepare for defensive action, and initiate increased antiterrorist, intelligence-gathering, and security measures. The ostensible purpose of such actions was to deter or counter aggressive actions by the 7th Muslim Brigade, the forces of which "have intensified their diversionary terrorist activities within the Operational Zone of Central Bosnia, and have been acting in a most brutal way. . . . These activities are planned, organised and promptly executed with the purpose of causing confusion within the HVO units and in order to prepare preconditions for offensive action and for capturing Croatian territory."28

By the early morning hours of April 16, Colonel Blaskic had alerted and deployed his limited available forces to meet the anticipated ABiH attack. In the ensuing battle, the HVO, significantly outnumbered and still not fully organized, successfully defended its lines against heavy and repeated ABiH assaults. The successful HVO defense in the Vitez area was due in large part to good intelligence work and the aggressive use of "active defense" measures to disrupt the ABiH offensive. The use of preemptive and spoiling attacks as well as blocking forces and clearing operations—often initiated and carried out by subordinate elements based on local assessments of the situation—prevented ABiH forces attacking the Vitez area from gaining their principle objectives: cutting the vital Travnik-Busovaca road, and seizing the SPS explosives factory.29

The aggressive actions of HVO forces in the Lasva Valley on April 16 were, in fact, mainly blocking operations and spoiling attacks intended to disrupt the ABiH offensive, prevent the breaching of HVO defensive positions and the loss of key positions such as OZCB headquarters and the SPS explosives factory, and retain control of the Travnik-Busovaca road. The HVO subsequently mounted a number of limited counterattacks and small clearing operations to regain or seize control of key terrain in the area of operations and to strengthen defensive positions by eliminating pockets of ABiH forces with direct observation and fields of fire on HVO positions. Four such HVO actions during the April fighting in the Vitez area merit special attention: the spoiling attack on the village of Ahmici; the clearing operations in the village of Donja Veceriska and in the village of Gacice, both of which overlook the SPS factory just west of Vitez; and the attempt to contain and then reduce the Muslim pocket in the Stari Vitez-Mahala section of the town of Vitez.

Ahmici

The HVO attack on the village of Ahmici on April 16 and the subsequent massacre of many of its Muslim inhabitants is perhaps the most notorious incident of the Muslim-Croat civil war in central Bosnia and has been at the center of at least five cases before the ICTY in which Bosnian Croat military and political leaders and HVO soldiers have been charged with war crimes.30 Although later portrayed by ICTY prosecutors as the epitome of Croat atrocities in central Bosnia, the events at Ahmici on April 16 seem to have aroused little comment at the time—other than on the part of Lt. Col. Bob Stewart, the BRITBAT commander—and apparently did not become an issue for the Muslims until 1994-95.31 However, despite investigations by the United Nations and the governments of both Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia, voluminous testimony before the ICTY by both Muslim and Croat witnesses, and the conclusions of ICTY prosecutors and judges, what actually happened in the village of Ahmici on the morning of April 16, 1993, and why, remain unclear. The most common interpretation is that the innocent Muslim inhabitants of the village were subjected to an unprovoked attack by HVO military police special operations forces. However, the available facts suggest a less fanciful alternative explanation: that Ahmici was a legitimate military target; that the village was defended by armed Muslim forces; that the OZCB commander, anticipating an attack by ABiH forces through the village, ordered a justifiable spoiling attack; and that the unit responsible for carrying out that attack, an element of the HVO 4th Military Police Battalion, either by premeditated design or in the heat of battle or both, went on a mindless rampage that included killing civilians and burning most of the Muslim section of the village.

The village of Ahmici was undoubtedly a legitimate military target for an HVO spoiling attack at the time by virtue of both its location and its probable use as an ABiH staging area. The village lies approximately three and one-half kilometers east of Vitez and on high ground some two hundred meters north of the main Travnik-Busovaca road. It is thus in a position to control the key route through the Lasva Valley at one if its most restricted points by direct and indirect fire.32 Muslim TO forces from Ahmici set up a roadblock near the village in October, 1992, to prevent the passage of HVO forces headed toward Jajce, and it was clearly identified by HVO intelligence sources at various times in March and April, 1993, as being astride the planned ABiH axes of attack into the Vitez area from the north and east.33 Given the proximity of the village to the Travnik-Busovaca road, it was the most likely assembly area for elements of the ABiH 325th Mountain Brigade and other ABiH forces tasked to make the attack across the road toward the Kruscica area on April 16.

Despite the repeated denials of senior ABiH commanders, on April 16 the village of Ahmici was clearly defended by local Muslim Territorial Defense forces as well as by ABiH elements staging for the attack across the Travnik-Kaonik road.34 The village is clearly marked on a captured ABiH operational map as being occupied by ABiH forces in January, 1993, and on April 11, 1993, Enes Varupa, a Muslim TO commander, recorded in his notebook that a TO company of at least eighty-five men was in the village on that date.35 Muslim TO members also met at their headquarters in the Zumara elementary school in Ahmici on April 11 to discuss plans for defending the village.36 Muslim forces in Ahmici were assigned "clearly defined tasks ... to secure the line toward Nadioci," and trenches and a number of dugouts had been prepared.37 An HVO intelligence estimate dated April 10 placed elements of the ABiH 325th Mountain Brigade in the village, and elements of the ABiH 303d Mountain Brigade were also ordered to support the Muslim forces in Ahmici.38 Croatian Defense Council sources also reported that the ABiH infiltrated thirty exceptionally well-armed soldiers into the village on April 14. On the evening of the fifteenth, the Muslim forces in Ahmici increased their level of security. In addition to the regular guards, ten men were on standby in the lower part of the village, and the guard force in the upper part of the village was doubled. During the course of the fight for the village on April 16, the Muslim forces in the village were reinforced from Vrhovine, and reinforcements from Poculica and the 325th Mountain Brigade were promised but failed to arrive in time to affect the situation.39 The HVO assault forces encountered resistance, including shelling by the ABiH, and after the action they recovered weapons and large amounts of ammunition, including 7.62-mm and 12.7-mm machine gun ammunition and RPG-7 rocket propelled grenades.40

The HVO spoiling attack on Ahmici was planned on the afternoon and evening of April 15, and Pasko Ljubicic, commander of the 4th Military Police Battalion, briefed members of his command in the Hotel Vitez, noting that a Muslim message had been intercepted saying that the ABiH would attack in the morning on April 16 and that to forestall the attack the HVO would attack first. Ljubicic then issued orders for elements of the 1st Company to join the 4th Military Police Battalion's Antiterrorist Platoon (known as the "Jokers") at the "Bungalow," a former restaurant close to the road in Nadioci.41 At 1:30 a.m. on the sixteenth, Colonel Blaskic, the OZCB commander, issued written orders for the 4th Military Police Battalion to block the Ahmici-Nadioci road (where he expected the Muslim attack) by 5:30 a.m. and to crush the enemy offensive.42 Further briefings were conducted at the Bungalow, and Ljubicic's second in command noted that several mujahideen had infiltrated into Ahmici during the night.43

The seventy-five-man assault force consisting of the "Jokers" and other elements of the 1st Company, 4th Military Police Battalion, augmented by a few local HVO members was divided into assault teams and moved out from the area of the "Bungalow" between 4:30 and 4:45 hours on the morning of the sixteenth.44 At 5:30, a single artillery round was fired—the agreed upon signal to start the assault—and the ground assault on the Muslim section of Ahmici was launched from the village's southeastern quadrant. Muslim forces in the lower part of the village resisted vigorously, and the attacking HVO troops immediately came under heavy Muslim fire.45 Muslim defenders barricaded in the mosque and the elementary school were supported by ABiH artillery, by light fire from the villages of Vrhovine and Pirici, and by snipers firing constantly from the woods and clearings above the village.

The Muslim fire was intense, killing three HVO military policemen and wounding three more.46 The HVO countered with intense mortar, small arms, and automatic weapons fire. Many buildings were set afire by tracers. At some point, whether by chance or by premeditated design, the responsible HVO commanders surrendered control of the situation, and what had been a legitimate, well-justified HVO spoiling attack deteriorated into a mindless rampage by the attacking HVO military policemen. Angered by earlier confrontations with the Muslims, the HVO attackers worked their way through the village using automatic weapons and grenades and killing men, women, and children in a cruel and indiscriminate manner.47

Unable to stem the HVO advance and failing promised reinforcements from Poculica and the 303d and 325th Mountain Brigades, the Muslim defenders evacuated the remaining civilians toward Vrhovine. They briefly considered a last-ditch stand in the upper village (Gornji Ahmici) before withdrawing at about 4 a.m. on April 17 to establish a defensive line at Barica Gaj, some 150 meters north of Ahmici, where the Muslim line remained until the Washington Agreements in March, 1994.48 Those Muslim inhabitants remaining in the village after the HVO assault were subsequently taken to the camp in Donja Dubravica and held there for some time.

From a purely military point of view, the HVO spoiling attack at Ahmici was very successful. The planned Muslim attack across the Travnik-Busovaca road in the Ahmici area was completely disrupted and could not be resumed. However, the destruction in the village was horrific, and civilian casualties were appalling. Most of the Muslim houses in the lower village were burned, some with the inhabitants inside. Many houses were set afire by incendiary ammunition and grenades used in the assault, but others were no doubt deliberately "torched." According to some accounts, as many as 109 Muslim civilians, including women and children, died or were missing as the result of the combat action and deliberate killing by the enraged and out of control HVO assault troops.49 Once the events in Ahmici on April 16 became known, the behavior of the HVO troops was justly characterized as a massacre, and a great deal of effort subsequently has been expended to bring the perpetrators to justice. Although the HVO forces' actions on April 16, particularly with respect to the unarmed Muslim civilians in the village, undeniably merit condemnation regardless of the emotional state engendered by active combat, the fact remains that the assault began as a legitimate military operation: a spoiling attack to disrupt the planned ABiH attack through Ahmici to cut the Travnik-Busovaca road. To have ordered such a spoiling attack was no war crime, although the events that ensued may have reached that level of culpability. It seems clear that the tragedy resulted not so much from the design of senior HVO leaders but rather from the working of that fear, anger, and madness attendant on many combat operations. In that respect, at least, the tragic events at Ahmici bear a far stronger resemblance to those at My Lai than to those at Lidice or Oradour-sur-Glane.50

Donja Veceriska

Even with good planning and near-perfect execution, collateral damage is inevitable during military operations in built-up areas. However, the HVO spoiling attack on the village of Ahmici was clearly an aberration, causing disproportionate destruction and wanton killing of noncombatants. The HVO clearing action in the village of Donja Veceriska on April 16-18, 1993, was much more representative of HVO operations conducted to foil the ABiH offensive in the Vitez area.51

The village of Donja Veceriska is located on a hill about one and one-half kilometers northwest of the center of Vitez and immediately overlooking the SPS explosives factory. In 1993, the population of the village was about 580 souls, of whom about 60 percent were Muslim and about 40 percent were Croats. The village dominated the factory and was thus very much

"key terrain," since the SPS explosives factory was a major ABiH objective throughout the Muslim-Croat conflict in central Bosnia. Until late 1992, the village's Croat and Muslim inhabitants worked together to protect it from a possible attack by Bosnian Serb forces. However, in October and November there was an influx of Muslim refugees from Jajce and elsewhere, tensions grew, and the joint Muslim-Croat village guard forces were disbanded. The Muslims began digging trenches in the village, and the number of provocations by Muslim extremists increased. In mid-March, 1993, the Croats in Donja Veceriska began planning to defend the village against possible action by Muslim extremists. The HVO reserve forces (essentially the Croat village guard) were organized, the evacuation of the Croat civilian population in the event of conflict was planned, and demands were issued for the filling in of trenches and the cessation of provocations.52

In April, the Muslim Territorial Defense forces in Donja Veceriska included a platoon of forty to fifty men, one machine gun, two automatic rifles, eleven miscellaneous small arms, and various vehicles.53 According to one Croat resident present at the time, the number of armed and uniformed Muslim soldiers plus armed Muslim refugees in Donja Veceriska may have been closer to a hundred, and their armament included AK-47s, "Gypsy" assault rifles, an M40 sniper rifle, Molotov cocktails, and other arms as well as a quantity of explosives obtained from the SPS factory by Boro Josic.54 They also had "Motorolas" (handheld radios) to communicate with ABiH commanders in Stari Vitez. At the same time, the HVO Home Guard forces in the village numbered less than fifty men armed with AK-47 assault rifles, shotguns, and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). They, too, were equipped with Motorola radios that enabled them to communicate with higher-level commanders.

The whole Lasva Valley was on alert on evening of April 15, and Ivica Drmic, the HVO leader in Donja Veceriska, received information that the Muslims would attack at 9 a.m. on April 16, 1993, although Colonel Blaskic did not assign any of the OZCB regular forces to defend the village. The Croat families left at the first sign of trouble, and some Muslim civilians were evacuated in a different direction. Both groups of evacuees subsequently mixed at the "train station" on April 17. At around 5:30 a.m. on April 16, the Muslim forces in Donja Veceriska opened fire and attempted to gain control of the village and thus be in a position to dominate the SPS factory and to fire on HVO positions in Vitez. There was a great deal of confusion on all sides, but shortly before 8 a.m. an HVO assault force was organized consisting of ten to twelve local men augmented by twelve to fifteen members of the Tvrtko II special purpose force. Their task was to gain control of the village, suppress the Muslim firing, and take the house of Midhat Haskic, a radical Muslim, which was being used to store arms.55 Fighting from house to house from the top of the village down, the HVO "assault force" succeeded in clearing Muslim fighters from ten to fifteen houses before being stopped at the Muslim strong point at Haskic's house in the middle of the village. All the armed Muslim refugees in Donja Ve-ceriska joined in the fight, and the firing continued all day long, stopping only after midnight on April 17. United Nations Protection Force elements entered the village on April 16 and 17 but did nothing to stop the fighting. During the early morning hours of April 18, UNPROFOR evacuated the remaining Muslim villagers from Donja Veceriska.56 The fighting in Donja Veceriska resumed on April 18, and shortly after noon the HVO mounted a determined house-to-house push that finally cleared the village.57 The remaining Muslim fighters, having expended their ammunition, withdrew to Grbavica.58

During the fighting in Donja Veceriska from April 16-18, the HVO forces suffered seven or eight wounded in action (WIA), including one who died of his wounds. The Muslims had six or seven KIA, and the HVO took nine Muslim prisoners. The latter were held overnight in Vitez and then released. Some Muslim civilians were also detained in Vitez, but all were released within three days.

By taking quick action to forestall Muslim seizure of the village, the HVO forces in Donja Veceriska eliminated a serious threat to the SPS explosives factory and the engagement of HVO forces in Vitez from the rear. The casualties inflicted were entirely proportionate to the ends of the operation, which appears in every way to have been a straightforward and quite legitimate clearing action with minimal military and civilian casualties and destruction of property.

Gacice

Events on April 16-19 in the village of Gacice, located on a hill two kilometers southwest of the center of Vitez and immediately to the southeast of the SPS explosives factory, paralleled those in Donja Veceriska and culminated in an HVO clearing operation to take the village.59 Gacice overlooks— and therefore dominates—the SPS factory and is also well within mortar and recoilless rifle range of the center of Vitez. For a time in late 1992, the headquarters of the ABiH 325th Mountain Brigade was located in Gacice's middle school, the so-called Yellow House.

In April, 1993, Gacice numbered about 378 souls, evenly divided between Muslims and Croats. The upper village was mixed, but the lower village near the cemetery and the explosives factory was mostly Muslim. Almost everyone in the village worked in the explosives factory. Some two hundred Muslim refugees from the Krajina moved into Gacice during 1992, perhaps as part of a centrally directed plan to infiltrate Muslim refugees into critical areas in order to change the ethnic balance. Tensions grew between the two ethnic groups that summer, and for a time the Muslims blocked the road by the school.

The Muslims in Gacice had few weapons until August, 1992, when the HVO and TO tried to take over the JNA armory at Slimena in Travnik. The armory was mined, and the Muslims broke in to get arms and exploded the mines while the HVO was negotiating with the JNA.60 The Muslims subsequently took the pieces and reassembled them into whole weapons. By mid-April, 1993, the Muslim TO forces in Gacice consisted of perhaps sixty well-organized and well-armed men.61 According to Enes Varupa, they had at least one machine-gun, a radio transmitter, some twenty-eight small arms, and various vehicles.62 Most were armed with AK-47 and "Gypsy" automatic assault rifles. They also had handheld Motorola radios to communicate with ABiH commanders. Once they were armed and organized, the Gacice Muslims became much more aggressive, and a number of clashes with the Croat inhabitants occurred.

Before the outbreak of fighting in the Lasva Valley on April 16, the HVO had no indication that the ABiH planned an armed takeover in Gacice.63 Once the fighting started on the sixteenth, the Muslims in town, lacking a clear superiority over the Croat inhabitants, sought reinforcements from the ABiH 325th Mountain Brigade in Kruscica and negotiated with the HVO in order to extend the time needed for reinforcements to arrive. The HVO recognized the stalling for what it was, but before attempting to clear the village the HVO gave the Muslims a chance to give up their arms and surrender without a fight. The Muslim response was to start digging in.64 The HVO then assembled an assault force consisting of a few policemen, about twenty village guards from Gacice and a few from nearby Kamenjace, and ten to fifteen members of the Vitezovi special purpose force.65 At about 6:30 in the morning on April 19, the HVO initiated an assault intended to clear the village of the armed Muslim forces and to halt the firing on Vitez.66

The HVO forces attacked in six or seven groups; the Muslims defenders were in three groups. One group of five to seven Muslims surrendered at 4:30 p.m. Others escaped, setting fire to Croat homes on the way out. However, the Muslims were willing to sacrifice their civilians, and although most stayed in their homes, none were killed. The Muslim soldiers fleeing from Gacice took advantage of the roughly six-hundred-meter-long escape route near the SPS factory purposefully left open for Muslim civilians by the HVO. Following the battle, which ended by 5:30 p.m. on the nineteenth, the HVO rounded up Muslim civilians and moved them to Vitez, where they were held until after the fighting in the area ended. They were then returned to their homes the following day.

In the Gacice clearing operation the HVO lost one KIA, and the Muslims lost three KIA (including a man they themselves killed because he did not wish to fight his Croat neighbors).67 The Viteska Brigade reported taking forty-seven prisoners. Two Muslim 82-mm mortars (without ammunition) and an M-84 machine gun were found after the action ended.

The contest for Gacice appears to have been a straightforward fight for control of a key piece of terrain following Muslim firing on Vitez, unsuccessful negotiations, and an offer by the HVO to resolve the situation without a fight. People were killed and things were broken—but certainly not disproportionately, and the HVO apparently did take positive action to ame-

liorate the effects of the battle on civilians by offering to accept surrender before the assault and by providing an escape route for Muslim civilians, although it should be noted that the usual Muslim pattern of retaining civilians in the battle area was practiced at Gacice.

Stari Vitez

Some of the most vicious fighting in the weeklong battle in the Vitez area focused on the Muslim enclave in the Stari Vitez-Mahala section of Vitez. Stari Vitez was a Muslim stronghold barely two hundred yards from the HVO OZCB headquarters. Beginning in November, 1992, the ABiH moved in experienced fighters, dug trenches, warehoused ammunition, and shifted an antiaircraft gun from the SPS factory to Stari Vitez.68 By April, 1993, the TO headquarters in Stari Vitez commanded at least 350 Muslim combatants.69 They were well-armed with small arms and automatic weapons; an antiaircraft gun; two 60-mm mortars; one M-84 heavy machine gun; three to six 7.62-mm light machine guns; ten rocket-propelled grenade launchers; and three sniper rifles, along with some 360 mortar shells.70 The Muslim forces were deployed in trenches and shelters constructed around Muslim houses, with strong points in Mahala-Rakite near Otpad, in the community center, in the Metal Borac shop near the cemetery, and in Donja Mahala.

In anticipation of an attack on OZCB headquarters in the early morning hours of April 16, Colonel Blaskic ordered the Vitezovi to prevent any attack from Stari Vitez.71 When OZCB headquarters came under fire on the morning of April 16, HVO forces acted immediately to isolate the Muslim forces in Stari Vitez. The Vitezovi, supported by military and civilian police and troops from the Viteska Brigade, encircled the enclave. A siegelike fight ensued as HVO forces first blockaded and then attempted to reduce the enclave and eliminate a serious cancer in their midst. Meanwhile, Muslim forces attacked repeatedly from north of the Travnik-Busovaca road to break through and reinforce their embattled comrades in Stari Vitez.

The battle for the Stari Vitez enclave continued long after the April 18 cease-fire agreement, with frequent shelling of the enclave by the HVO, intense sniper fire from both sides, and occasional attempts at ground assaults by both the Muslims in Stari Vitez and the HVO troops surrounding the enclave.72 Throughout the so-called siege, Muslim forces in Stari Vitez continued to receive limited amounts of supplies by infiltration through the HVO lines, from humanitarian organizations, with the help of UNPROFOR, and allegedly from the HVO.73 The battle produced heavy casualties on both sides, but the Muslim stronghold proved too hard a nut for the HVO to crack.74 Finally, on February 27, 1994, UNPROFOR forces mounted Operation Stari Simon and broke into the enclave to evacuate the Muslim sick and wounded.75

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  • Marco
    How many mines were there in the vitez pocket?
    8 years ago
  • tori
    Where is vitez, bosnia on the map?
    8 years ago

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