Vitez Busovaca Area

In September, 1993, Muslim forces made yet another strong attempt to cut the main road through the Lasva Valley. The attack began on September 5 with an assault on the village of Zabilje from the direction of Brdo. The ABiH forces succeeded in entering the village, and the HVO subsequently reported that two HVO soldiers had been killed and nine wounded, and that fifteen to twenty civilians working in the fields had been taken prisoner. The British UNPROFOR battalion at Stari Bila reported a significant rise in the intensity of local exchanges of artillery, mortar, rocket-propelled grenade, heavy machine gun, and small-arms fire beginning at 8:30 a.m. in the vicinity of Brdo. The firing soon extended to Bukve, to Jardol in the afternoon, and on toward the main road north of Vitez. According to the UNPROFOR: "The immediate BIH objective in this area is to capture Zabilje; this will then ultimately allow their forces to push further south in order to cut the HVO MSR ... it is a BIH long term aim to divide the Novi Travnik/ Vitez/Busovaca Croat enclave into a number of smaller isolated pockets."1 The attack on Zabilje was mounted by elements of the ABiH 325th Mountain Brigade. Mensud Kelestura, the brigade commander, subsequently claimed he had twenty-two HVO bodies to exchange and stated that he would attack Stari Bila within ten days. The situation quieted down on September 6, but heavy firing on the ABiH positions on Bila Hill resumed around 1 p.m. on the seventh and continued into the night. On September 8, the HVO launched its own attack in the Stari Bila area. Elements of the Viteska Brigade, supported by the Vitezovi PPN, attacked Muslim positions in Grbavica in order to forestall the promised ABiH attack and prevent Muslim forces from advancing any farther toward the SPS explosives factory. By first seizing the high ground to either side of the village, including Grbavica (Bila) Hill, which dominated the area, the HVO forces skillfully ejected Muslim troops from the village itself. The BRITBAT reported both the successful HVO clearing attack on September 8 and the consequent HVO celebrating on Bila Hill the following day.2

The ABiH launched another attack toward Vitez along the Preocica-Kruscica axis on September 18, their aim being to cut the Novi Bila-Busovaca road and divide the existing Croat enclave into two parts. After a quiet night in the Vitez area, ABiH artillery and mortars in the Bila area opened fire at about 1 a.m. on the eighteenth. Rounds fell on HVO positions west of Novi Travnik; in Novi Bila, Vitez, and Busovaca; and elsewhere along the line of contact in the Lasva Valley. The BRITBAT subsequently reported that the ABiH had launched a series of battalion-size assaults on HVO positions in the valley and had made a number of minor territorial gains, particularly in the area north of Kruscica toward Vitez. On September 19, the BRITBAT reported that the ABiH's main thrust seemed to be in the Kruscica and Krcevine areas, with signs of infantry attacks at about 1:10 p.m. in the area around Cifluk and Brankovac.3 The ABiH attacks continued on September 20, focusing on the Ahmici area along the Sivrino Selo-Pirici-Ahmici-Kratine line of contact in the north, and the area between Kruscica and Vitez in the south as the Muslims advanced perhaps a kilometer in twenty-four hours. The fighting in the north shifted to the Santici area the following day, while the main battle continued along the line of contact established previously in the area south of Vitez. After four days of heavy fighting, the ABiH offensive in the Vitez area petered out without gaining its principal objectives.

On September 23, ABiH forces launched a large-scale artillery and infantry attack in the Busovaca area, killing five HVO troops, including a commander. In addition, about fifteen 120-mm mortar rounds landed in the town of Busovaca, seriously injuring several civilians. Near the end of the month, on September 27, the ABiH again tried to cut the road in the Vitez area by advancing south from Sivrino Selo and north from Rijeka at the point where the Croat enclave was at its narrowest. That same day, the Croat hospital in Vitez received three direct hits by ABiH mortars. Two persons were killed.4 The Vitez hospital was hit by Muslim shells again on September 28 as fighting continued in the afternoon in the villages north of town on a general line running from Jardol to Nadioci. The UNPROFOR reported the next day that Fikret Cuskic's 17th Krajina Mountain Brigade had established its headquarters in the village of Kruscica. A BRITBAT officer visiting the office of Ramiz Dugalic, the ABiH III Corps security officer, saw a map with arrows indicating the severing of the Vitez-Busovaca enclave in the Sivrino Selo area.5

The situation in the Lasva Valley remained relatively quiet throughout the month of October, but sustained fighting erupted again in early November. On November 5, the ABiH attacked laterally from Kruscica northwest toward the SPS factory, gaining control of Zbrdje and a settlement of weekend houses in the area southwest of Vitez. They established a front line ex tending from the weekend homes to Bijelijna and thus brought the SPS factory under direct fire for the first time since mid-April.6

Just over a month later, on December 8, the ABiH mounted a two-pronged attack from Zaselje and Stari Vitez with the apparent objective of taking the SPS factory.7 The Muslims failed again, but they achieved greater success just two weeks later when the ABiH mounted another determined attack on Vitez along the Preocica-Sivrino Selo-Pirici axis toward Krizancevo Selo on December 22. The HVO defenders were surprised; Krizancevo Selo, just fifteen hundred meters from the UNPROFOR Dutch/ Belgian Transport Battalion compound near Dubravica, was taken; and between sixty and a hundred HVO soldiers and Croat civilians were killed in the village.8 The operation was conducted by the 2d Battalion, 325th Mountain Brigade, under the personal supervision of Gen. Rasim Delic, the ABiH commander, who was present in the 2d Battalion command post during the attack. In view of the determined ABiH attempts to take Vitez and the SPS factory, it is not surprising that a proposed ABiH-HVO Christmas cease-fire fell through due to ABiH intransigence.9

The ABiH enclave in Stari Vitez remained a cancer in the breast of the HVO forces defending the Vitez-Busovaca enclave throughout the period. The Muslim forces in Stari Vitez were heavily armed and resupplied on occasion with the help of UN forces.10 Even women were mobilized and took an active part in the fighting, thereby giving up their status as noncom-batants. The HVO closely invested the small but noisome enclave and frequently sought without success to carry it by assault, most notably on July 18. Yet the ABiH was equally unsuccessful in its efforts to relieve the enclave, principally due to the spirited HVO resistance.11

The ABiH attacks in the Vitez-Busovaca area continued into 1994. Filip Fil-ipovic, the acting OZCB commander, refused to surrender a triangle of land north of Stari Vitez that would have permitted the ABiH to link up with the Muslim Territorial Defense forces in Stari Vitez and break the siege. The Muslims responded by resuming their offensive in the early morning hours on January 9, with the ABiH forces advancing in a pincer movement from the Krizancevo Selo area south toward Santici, and from Kruscica north toward the Lasva Valley road.12 The battle continued on January 10, and Muslim forces broke through the HVO defenses the next day. They quickly established a new line at Bukve Kuce, about a hundred meters from the OZCB headquarters in the Hotel Vitez.13 That same day, ABiH soldiers placed a flag on a telephone pole opposite the gate of the UNPROFOR transport battalion compound in Santici. It was the "closest [the] BiH ever came to cutting the Vitez Pocket in two."14 The attack did succeed in closing the southern exit from Vitez toward Busovaca, and during the three days of fighting some thirty-six Croats, both military and civilian, were killed, and a number were listed as missing.15 The HVO counterattacked on January 24 and regained some of the ground lost earlier in the month. Meanwhile, Sir Martin Garrod, the head of the ECMM Regional Center in Zenica, noted in his end-of-tour report that the two large Muslim offensives launched on December 22, 1993, and January 9, 1994, with the aim of reducing the Vitez pocket, "turned out not to be as effective militarily as they appeared to be initially."16

Even as negotiations to end the Muslim-Croat conflict began, fighting continued in the Vitez area. In early February, the ABiH regrouped and brought in reinforcements from Sarajevo and Zenica in preparation for another major assault to cut the Lasva Valley road at Santici. An ABiH attack toward San-tici on February 8 failed, and the HVO counterattacked to widen the neck of the Vitez Pocket. On February 14, the HVO succeeded in removing the ABiH flag placed in Santici on January 11, and after almost two months of heavy fighting the lines in the Vitez Pocket were back where they had been before the first Muslim offensive in the area. The fighting in the Vitez region tapered off, then resumed briefly as both sides sought a final advantage immediately before the cease-fire pursuant to the peace accords signed in Zagreb on February 23 were to go into effect at noon on February 25.17

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