Policy Of The Republic Of Croatia Towards Bosnia And Herzegovina 1992-95 (Part II) – Analysis


Croatian aid to Bosnian Army (ABIH)

Croatian started sending military aid to Muslim troops as early as 1991, when the training of the reserve militia of Bosnia and Herzegovina was organized in Croatia. When the JNA and Bosnian Serbs started an armed uprising against Bosnia in April, Croatia continuously sent aid to the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina (ABIH) until April 1993, when it became clear that the ABIH intended to wage war against the Croatian Defence Council (HVO). On April 21, 1992, the Croatian government made a decision to return military conscripts to BIH, and this was confirmed the next day by the Headquarters of the Croatian Army (HV).

A very important role in the arming of the Bosnian Army was played by HV general Mate Šarlija Daidža (Nijaz Batlak). On his initiative, in November 1991, the training of 106 leaders of Green Beret combat groups was organized in Croatia. Šarlija supplied large quantities of weapons to the troops of the Patriotic League in Sarajevo, Mostar and eastern Bosnia, and at the end of the year he also met with Izetbegović where further plans were agreed upon. In October 1992, he was engaged in organizing the transportation of weapons and equipment to the logistics centers of ABIH.

On April 7, 1992, at the suggestion of the chief inspector of the HV, Martin Špegelj, it was approved to send soldiers from the area of ​​the Rijeka Operational Zone to Bosnia. At his request, two days later the Deputy Chief of the Headquarters of the HV, Petar Stipetić, gave consent for several hundred soldiers, Croats and Muslims under the leadership of Mustafa Porobić, from OZ Rijeka to Bosnia as volunteers. Volunteers from the HV retained all the rights of Croatian soldiers with the obligation to remove the insignia of Croatian Army. This practice continued.

Since the beginning of the war, Croatia has allowed the establishment of ABIH logistics centers on its territory. At the beginning of June 1992, the 1st Krajina battalion TO BIH was established at the Zagreb Fair, which was later sent to Jajce and Travnik. On June 21, the 7th Krajina brigade TO BIH was formed in Klana near Rijeka. Before going to Central Bosnia, it underwent training there. At the end of 1992, it was transformed into the 17th Krajina Mountain Brigade, the most important unit of the 3rd Corps of the Bosnian Army, which will fight intensively with the HVO. In July, HVO sent a request that the HV reconsider the sending of troops of ABIH from Zagreb and Rijeka, since they are coming to the towns (Kiseljak, Travnik) and do not want to go to the battlefield, but “create problems in the city”.

On August 6, 1992, a member of the BiH presidency, Fikret Abdić, asked the Croatian government to establish the Headquarters for the support of Bosnia in Croatian cities. Headquarters already existed, but they were poorly coordinated. The Croatian Government complied with this request. On April 6, 1992, the Crisis Headquarters for assistance to Bosnia was established in Split, and it continued to operate in early 1993. In Zagreb, there was the logistics center of the Bosnian Army, and the logistics base of the Handžar Division was also established.

Since June 1992, the beleaguered Bihać has been enabled by the Croatian Air Force to maintain contact with the rest of the world. The flights were regular until the end of December 1992. Soldiers in groups of several hundred and several dozen were sent to Bihać through the occupied Croatian territory under the control of the rebel Serb forces, suffering heavy losses. Croatia helped ABIH with the development of sophisticated military communication systems, sent medical supplies, food, fuel, and electricity. Without logistical support from Croatia, ABIH and HVO would have been quickly defeated in 1992 and Serbian forces would have occupied the vast majority of BIH.

Contribution of HVO and HV to the defense of BIH in 1992

At the beginning of 1992, the JNA occupied about 70% of the territory of BiH even before BiH was internationaly recognized. The municipal headquarters of the territorial defense of Herzeg-Bosnia were merged into the HVO on April 8, 1992. The establishment of the Croatian Defense Council (HVO) and the involvement of the HV was crucial in stopping the Serbian offensive on four key directions in BiH: Southeastern Herzegovina, Southwestern Bosnia, Bosnian Posavina, and the Vrbas and Lašva valleys. The JNA and Serbian rebels attacked Mostar on April 3, 1992, captured Stolac on April 10, and tried to break out on the left bank of the Neretva. HV units stopped them at the Stolovi Pass from April 11 to 16.

At the end of April, the defense of Neum was stabilized, and on April 24, the Čapljina base was captured. On April 29, the crisis headquarters of the Muslim-majority Mostar municipality made a decision according to which the HVO takes over the defense of Mostar. The HVO pushed the JNA out of the area of ​​Mostar from June 11 to 12 and crossed the Neretva, and in intense fighting by June 25, liberated the eastern part of the city, the airport, and broke out on Podveležje. On June 13, Stolac was liberated. In strong battles from August 21 to 26, the HVO repelled a strong Serbian attack from Blagaj to Bijelo Polje. The fighting lasted until the beginning of November. The liberation of Mostar and the road to Podveležje is one of the most outstanding accomplishments of the HVO. In southwestern Bosnia, the HVO lost Kupres on April 7, but stopped the JNA penetration in the area of ​​Šuica and Livno, which were defended on April 10 and 13. HV and other Croatian units participated in the fighting.

Serbian attacks on Bosanska Posavina began at the beginning of March 1992. The attack on Bosanski Brod was stopped by HVO and HV on April 16. In the fighting in May, Croatian forces took advantage of the chaos in the East Bosnian Corps of the Army of Republika Srpska (VRS) and captured Modriča and cut off the „Serbian corridor“ that connected Bosanska Krajina and Semberija. The former Banja Luka Corps of the JNA (renamed the 1st Krajina Corps of the JNA), which was transferred from Western Slavonia, and the special forces of the Serbs from the Croatia were engaged to form the corridor.

The Serbian offensive began on June 24. Considering the overwhelming superiority of the Serbian forces, the weak organization of the HVO and the impossibility of greater engagement of the Croatian Army (the Bosnian government refused to sign a military agreement with the Croatian government and the Croatia was threatened with sanctions by the UN Security Council because “interference” in the Bosnian war), Serbian forces achieved a triumph and occupied Modriča on June 28 and secured the Serb corridor. Derventa was captured on the 4th and Odžak on the 13th of July, and the Serbian army broke out on the Sava. Nevertheless, the Serbs only captured Bosanski Brod on October 6, even though the plan was until the end of July. The HVO kept Orašje and Bosanski Šamac. Although it mostly fell, HVO involvement in Posavina helped defend BIH on other fronts.

In the Vrbas valley, immediately after the outbreak of war, the HVO organized a line of defense towards Kupres and included the local Muslims. In early April, the local Croatian leadership diplomatically prevented the JNA from entering Bugojno, unlike the neighboring Donji Vakuf, which the JNA captured without a fight. The HVO also organized the defense of Jajce, even though Muslims were the majority. Thanks to the Croats, Jajce and Bugojno were defended in the summer of 1992. In the second half of September, the HVO held 85% of the line on the Jajace battlefield against the VRS.

Due to these efforts, Jajce did not fall until the end of October 1992, which was contributed to by the outbreak of conflict between the two allies. In the area of ​​the Lašva valley, the HVO organized the defense of Travnik, and the ABIH organized the defense of Turbet. After the fall of Jajce came the Croatian general, Slobodan Praljak and strengthened the defense of Travnik. In June 1992, the Presidency of BiH named Serbia and Montenegro as aggressors, along with the JNA, but not Croatia, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs of BiH, Haris Silajdžić, stated in a letter to the UN Security Council that the HVO was fighting for the freedom and independence of BiH , as part of the defense forces of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 1992, Croatian troops, together with the ABIH, prevented Serbian forces from occupying strategically extremely important points in Bosnia. Croat areas in BIH were largely defended, while a much larger percentage of Muslim areas fell under the Serb control. 

The myth of the multicultural Bosnian Army

In the Decision on the establishment of units of the Territorial Defense (TO) of BiH, the future ABiH, in May 1992, which appoints the same number of commanders in 44 different units – there is not a single Croat. The BiH Army was created as a Muslim army from the Patriotic League. Sefer Halilović writes in the book “Cunning strategy”: “The basic task of PL BIH is the protection of the Muslim people.” The overall organization of the Patriotic League was organized in secret under the supervision of the Muslim party of SDA and Izetbegović two months before the establishment of the HVO. The deputies of Halilović, the Chief of Staff of the ABIH Supreme Command, were the Croat Stjepan Šiber and the Serb Jovan Divjak, who served as external evidence of the alleged multi-ethnicity of the BiH Army, which Izetbegović himself confirms in his conversation with Tuđman: “I can only tell you that Divjak has no influence whatsoever specifically on conducting operations.“ Divjak himself confirmed this in his letter to Izetbegović: “During the 13 months of the war, I was never treated as a deputy, but as a ‘third’. I support this by the fact that I was never involved in the planning and organization of operations abd battles of the ABIH.”

A little later, Divjak sent a similar letter to Halilović: “I ask you, did you feel like a real commander of the ABIH when representatives of only one nation were sitting with you at the briefing in Zenica, and you advocate for a multinational army?” In the Decision on promotion to ranks in the Bosnian Army which is also signed by Izetbegović, 227 officers are listed, of which only three are non-Muslims. Even the officers of the El Mujahid detachment of the 3rd Corps were promoted.

The real multi-ethnicity of the HVO units

The closest to the ideal of a multi-ethnic army in the wars in the former Yugoslavia was the HVO. The HVO was literally multi-ethnic for a large part of the war, and one could without hesitation call some parts of the HVO a Croat-Muslim army. During 1992, the HVO had as many as 30% Muslims in its fighting forces. The ethnic diversity of the HVO units was also confirmed by the commander of the ABIH security service, Fikret Muslimović, in an article published on February 7, 1993: “In the RBIH Army, there are still Croats in important positions in the headquarters, but there are no soldiers in the units. However, when it comes to the HVO, the situation is reversed because in some units there are even up to 70% Muslims.”

In mid-1993, during the fiercest Croat-Muslim battles, the Office of the President of the HZ HB announced that “HVO is Muslim as well as Croatian”. In the report of the Southeastern Herzegovina Operational Zone dated June 9, 1993, it is pointed out that there are 2,500 Muslim soldiers in the area of ​​that OZ. 25% of Muslims were in the Rama and Livno brigades (Muslims had their own battalion) and 10% in the Tomislavgrad brigade.

In the eight Posavina HVO brigades, the percentage of Muslims varied from 10 to 60%. BiH Army units did not exist in B. Posavina, but Muslims were in the HVO, with the fact that they wore Muslim insignia in addition to Croatian ones. Even in the Penal Battalion of HVO, out of its 280 soldiers, there were 116 Muslims. In February 1993, in the 1st brigade of the HVO in Čapljina, Muslims made up more than 50% of the soldiers on the front line towards the VRS, in contact with the Croatian army which held the line towards Dubrovnik. In HVO Stolac, Muslims made up as much as 60-70% of the members. Two battalions were established with a 50:50 ethnic structure. HVO Tuzla and Bihać also had a multi-ethnic structure. The multi-ethnicity of the HVO was greatly reduced after June 30, 1993, when, during the attack on the Sjeverni logor barracks, part of the Muslim members of the HVO in Mostar committed treason and killed their Croatian comrades in their sleep during the night.

Izetbegović rejects the military agreement between Bosnia and Croatia and the establishment of a joint command in 1992 and 1993

The Croatian President, Franjo Tuđman, and the President of the Presidency of the RBIH, Alija Izetbegović, “starting from the common interests of their countries in protecting their independence and territorial integrity”, signed the “Agreement on Friendship and Cooperation between the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republic of Croatia” in Zagreb on July 21, 1992. Talks lasted nine hours before an agreement was reached.

According to the agreement, the two presidents agreed that the future political arrangement will be based on the equality of the three constituent peoples in the constituent units that will be formed on historical, cultural, transport, economic and other grounds. The HVO was recognized as part of the Armed Forces of BiH, but Izetbegović refused to sign the military agreement between the Croatia and the Bosnia under the pretext that it was not yet time so as not to irritate the Serb side. The agreement with the Republic of Croatia was signed by the Bosnian president for tactical reasons in order to legalize and enable further logistical support of Croatia and ensure the resettlement of Bosnian refugees in Croatia.

Throughout 1992 and in the first half of 1993, the Croats were in favor of creating a joint command of the ABIH and the HVO in order to manage military operations more efficiently, because it is difficult when two armies operate in the same area. Muslims were against it. The joint headquarters was technically agreed in the Friendship Agreement between Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina from July 21, 1992, but Izetbegović avoided its formation in practice. He hardly accepted the HVO as a military structure and did not want to share power over the Armed Forces of BIH with the Croats. On October 7, 1992, a meeting of the delegations of the ABIH and the HVO with the commanders of UNPROFOR, Abdel Razek and Philippe Morillon, was to be held in Sarajevo. Halilović told Šiber that he would not come to that meeting: “I don’t want to talk to the Ustashas. All of them are Ustashas except you… Lie, Stjepan, lie, say I’m sick and have a fever and get me out.” On November 1, after the first clashes between Croats and Muslims, Tuđman and Izetbegović made a statement that they would start with the “urgent formation of a joint command”. However, that was not implemented.

In a joint statement dated April 25, 1993, Generals Halilović and Milovoj Petković stated: “The signatories of this joint statement call on all commanders and units of the ABIH and the HVO to unconditionally respect all agreements reached so far between representatives of the Croatian and Muslim peoples in the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In particular, they call on the military units of the ABIH and the HVO to start without delay the implementation of the agreement that the ABIH and the HVO are equally legal units and on the establishment of a joint command of these forces composed of representatives of both headquarters.”

In the addendum to the statement, a document was signed in which it was pointed out that “the ABIH and the HVO will retain their separate identities and command structures… They will form a joint command, which will be responsible for controlling the operations of military areas… Each military district will have will have operational control over all units of the ABIH and the HVO in their territories.” However, in practice, thanks to the obstructions of the Muslim side, it didn’t realized until the Washington Agreement (March 1994), and in reality until the Split Declaration (July 1995). It is obvious that Croatia had no intention of starting a war with the Muslims and dismembering Bosnia, because if it had, Croatia would not have insisted on a military agreement with the party it is trying to attack.

An unsustainable argument about Croatian guilt for the Croat-Muslim war

Many authors interpret the beginning of the Croat-Bosniak war with the thesis that the Croats were delighted with the Vance-Owen plan and that they began to violently implement it in January 1993. The so-called “ultimatum” on the submission of the ABIH to the HVO in Croatian provinces 3, 8 and 10, was followed by the HVO attack on Gornji Vakuf-Uskoplje and the ethnic cleansing of Muslims in Herzegovina and central Bosnia. This is an incorrect statement that overlooks some facts. The UN documentation reveals that “The Bosnian government and the Croatian delegation have agreed to try to submit a joint proposal when it comes to provincial borders. This is also confirmed by Izetbegović’s decision, based on an agreement with Mate Boban, to appoint three representatives (Kasim Trnka, Ćamil Salahović, Musadik Borogavac) who, together with the three appointed by Boban (Zoran Buntić, Ante Markotić, Anto Valenta), will be members of the commission for the harmonization of the joint proposal for the administrative-political spatial arrangement of the state of BIH.

This confirms David Owen in his book: “In all the comments on the Vance-Owen peace plan, it is mostly forgotten that the borders, especially the provinces of Mostar and Travnik, as well as Posavina, Zenica and Tuzla, were agreed in advance between Muslims and Croats at that meeting (December 17, 1992  in Zagreb).

In accordance with the Vance-Owen plan, on January 15, 1993, the HVO president of HZ HB Jadranko Prlić, President of the Defense Department of the HZ HB Bruno Stojić, Chief of the Main Staff of the HVO, Milivoj Petković and next day Minister of Defense RBIH, Božo Rajić, signed the orders on the subordination of the units of the ABIH in the Croatian provinces 3, 8 and 10 to the command of the HVO Headquarters and the units of the HVO to the Headquarters of Army of Bosnian Army in the Muslim provinces 1, 5 and 9.

On January 19, Izetbegović canceled Rajić’s order, and Rajić himself suspended it two days later “until the end of the peace negotiations in Geneva”. Despite the fact that the order of HVO officials was never implemented, and was technically valid until January 19 or 21, some authors like the ICTY will interpret this as an ultimatum of the HVO and Croatian guilt for the war. Basically, it is a move that is a consequence of the Geneva agreements. Admittedly, it is true that the order was premature and that the Croats euphorically accepted the Vance-Owen plan due to the size of the Croatian provinces (26% of Bosnia and Herzegovina). However, Lord Owen rightly observed “although the Croats assume that they will be the majority in the province of Travnik, in fact in our judgment it will not be long before there will be a Muslim majority.”

Unitarian policy of Izetbegović – cause of war between Muslims and Croats

The claim of Croatian guilt is also untenable for military reasons. At the beginning of 1993, the Croatian Defense Council had only 36,000 soldiers (6,000 of whom were Muslims) who defended the areas where Croats had lived for centuries. At the same time, at the beginning of 1993, the Muslim ABIH numbered more than 261,000 soldiers, and was even seven times more numerous than the HVO. All connoisseurs of military history, know that in such a balance of power, the weaker side, never starts a war. The HVO only had defense capabilities, as its name suggests. Furthermore, fierce fighting between the HVO and the ABIH in Gornji Vakuf-Uskoplje broke out 4 days before the “ultimatum” – on January 11.

The cause of this conflict lies in the fact that in December 1992, the Command of the 3rd ABIH Corps sent the bulk of the 305th Mountain Brigade to the area of ​​Bugojno and Gornji Vakuf. Given that the VRS from the Kupres area did not threaten that area and that the Muslim troops were there anyway stronger than the Croatian forces, sending the 305th brigade to the Vrbas valley is a de facto declaration of war against the Croats. That brigade wanted to threaten the road Prozor-Gornji-Vakuf-Novi Travnik and control the mountain pass Makljen – the most important object in Herzeg-Bosnia. Thus, the Bosnian Army would separate the Herzegovinian and Bosnian HVO and create the conditions for an attack on the Croatian territories in Central Bosnia and their elimination.

The HVO diplomatically tried to convince the Bosnian Army to remove the 305th Brigade, but the Muslims did not agree. The HVO brought reinforcements and a conflict broke out on January 11. The conflict ended on January 25, when the HVO was on the verge of a complete victory in Gornji Vakuf. However, at the behest of Zagreb (Gojko Šuško), the fighting gave way to negotiations, which turned out to be a fatal mistake for the Croatian side, which later would not succeed in completely mastering that strategically important area.

In those days, on January 27, 1993, in an interview with the Spanish newspaper “El Pais”, Halilović resolutely endorsed Bosnia as a unitary and sovereign state which, if not through negotiations, he will “realize on the battlefield”, while threatening Europe with terrorist actions (“many European cities will burn in flames”). A few days earlier, ABiH units attacked the HVO in Central Bosnia and in the villages of Lašva, Dusina and Gusti Grab committed war crimes against several captured Croatian soldiers and civilians.

Izetbegović declaratively accepted the Vance-Owen plan under the pressure of the international community, but in reality sabotaged it because he did not want to agree to the federal arrangement of Bosnia and Herzegovina. He stuck to the statement: “civil state or civil war”. This is the cause of the war between Muslims and Croats. Similarly, at the time of the end of the conflict in Konjic, the Vance-Owen peace plan was signed in Geneva on March 25, 1993. At the session of the Herzeg-Bosnia in Čitluk on April 3, it was concluded that the ABIH should withdraw or be placed under the command of the HVO in the provinces 3 , 8 and 10, and the HVO under the command of the ABIH in provinces 1, 5 and 9 and to form a joint command. It was concluded that “the competent military and other bodies of the HVO Herzeg-Bosnia will implement that paragraph of the Basic Document of the Peace Plan in the area of ​​provinces 3, 8 and 10. At the same time, the HVO will respect the competences of the authorities in the provinces dominated by the other two nations.”

Although Reuters reported that the HVO gave an “ultimatum” to the government in Sarajevo, there is no evidence that this decision was even conveyed to Izetbegović or that the HVO tried to implement the Vance-Owen plan by force. On the contrary, on April 14, the 4th Corps and the Igman Operative Group of the 1st ABIH Corps attacked the HVO in Konjic, destroyed the Herceg-Stjepan HVO brigade, ethnically cleansed the Croatian population there, and committed a war crime in Trusina on April 16. Then the Croat-Muslim war flared up throughout Bosnia.

Matija Šerić

Matija Šerić is a geopolitical analyst and journalist from Croatia and writes on foreign policy, history, economy, society, etc.

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