Croatia and Krajina: Letting Blood
20 September 1993
Let's see what we've had?. Croats: shelled Serb positions, seized three villages on the edge of `the pink zone' (Divoselo, Citluk and Pocitelj), shelled Glina, Vojnic, Petrinja and other places in Krajina, launched air strikes on several villages in the municipality of Vrgin Most, and accepted in principle the cease-fire and withdrawal from the seized villages on condition they are controlled by UNPROFOR. Serbs: shelled Croat positions, lost three villages (when eighty-year-old Dusan Lucic distinguished himself by carrying out about twenty soldiers and locals from besieged Divoselo), shelled Karlovac, Zadar, Sisak and other Croatian towns, hit the Zagreb suburb of Lucko by a surface to surface missile "Frog-7," and Jastrebarsko with four missiles from the multiple rocket launcher "Orkan," shot down one Croatian "MIG-21," accepted in principle the cease-fire and gave up regaining lost villages on condition they are controlled by UNPROFOR. All in allmore destruction and more corpses.
Chief-of-Staff of the Croatian Army, General Janko Bobetko, explained on Croatian television why he launched an offensive on September 9 and took control of three villages in the vicinity of Gospic, "Chetnicks' position were so close to Gospic, that they completely destroyed the town over the past two years, thus instilling fear and sense of insecurity among the population. Therefore, it was decided that the enemy forces, Chetnicks, are thrown off from Gospic, that a kind of security zone is formed and attacks prevented."
Only few took his word for it. Cedrick Thornberry, the Head of UNPROFOR Civil Sector, stated that this action had mined the Serb-Croat meeting (agreed with much effort about the same time when the Croatian Army started the offensive) on one of the British Navy ships in the Adriatic. He also added that "it was not the first time that one or the other side committed sabotage on the eve of the agreement." The Headquarters of the Serb Army in Krajina announced that the real goal of the Croatian Army was to surround Serb units in Benkovac and Obrovac, take control of the Gospic-Sveti Rok road and deblock the motorway at Okucani. It also announced action deep inside the Croatian territory. It is hard to believe that Zagreb had been unable to foresee the consequences of the action in the villages at the foot of Mount Velebit: international pressure on Croatia and vociferous response from Krajina. Whatever security of Gospic was gained is not much of an accomplishment, especially as destruction of Gospic and other Croatian towns continued.
Almost the entire international public assessed that the latest Serb-Croat war was a part of the forgotten, but not finished war of 1991. The peace plan of Cyrus Vance, as a basis for signing the cease-fire at the beginning of 1992 provided Croatia with necessary relief from destruction and it also militarily deranged Serbia, as according to General Veljko Vlahovic, "the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) reached the borders of the future Serbian states." The peace accord, signed from necessity, has different interpretations: Zagreb believes that UNPROFOR should make possible reintegration of one third of its territories to which it lays claim and Knin expects security of their self-styled Serbian state. Although UNPROFOR managed to preserve relative peace throughout 1992, it failed to make any progress as regards opening of communication lines, allowing return of refugees to their homes, demilitarising the area and the like, which indisputably was their task. The Croatian authorities used inefficiency of UNPROFOR and failure to implement the Vance plan to justify their action in the area of the Maslenica bridge on January 22.
The latest military action in the area of Mount Velebit can be viewed from the angle of U.N. engagement in Croatia. If we assume that the peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina is near at hand, i.e. legalisation of ethnic partition, this recipe may be applied to Croatia as well, the members of UNPROFOR in Krajina would be no other that guarantors of such a solution. However, as long as there is no peace in Bosnia, any radicalisation of the situation in Croatia, such as this one, makes the biggest problem of the international community practically unsolvable. Therefore, Zagreb seems to be gaining an opportunity to blackmail the U.N., which might look like this, "change your mandate and finally do what is expected from you, or we shall keep up the tension and the war in B-H will last forever." This is not unimportant, especially since September 30 when Croatian President Franjo Tudjman is to approve the new mandate of peace keeping forces is approaching.
The reaction of the Army of the Republic of Serb Krajina to the Croat offensive was unexpectedly fierce. The key battlefields were opened again without giving it much thought. Karlovac, which is the only other corridor to the sea besides the Zadar hinterland, was shelled. Civilian traffic towards Rijeka and Dalmatia had to be redirected through Slovenia, and everybody else may use it "on their own responsibility." Surface to surface missile "Frog-7" was fired on the Zagreb suburb of Luckoone should recall the destruction in 1991 of which the citizens of Zagreb were spared but had a demoralising effect. Missiles fell on Jastrebarsko, and rockets from "Orkan" exploded in Samobor. The message was more than clear: there aren't too many places out of range of Serb rockets. At the same time the Croat Army shelled Vojnic, Teslingrad (formerly Licki Osik), Gracac, etc. thus making it known that it too has the arms to fire from, and the Croatian Air Force went into action for the first time. Its performance made a problematic impression. Krajina now knows that Croatia has more than two "MIG-21" planes (the Belgrade daily "Politika" claimed that they have 36 aircraft, while UNPROFOR reported of 4 planes taking part in the mission). On the other hand, the fact that one aircraft was shot down in a least spectacular mission did nothing to boost the morale of Croat soldiers.
Examining artillery and rocket calibers in Croatia and Krajina at the end of July in the Croatian weekly "Nedjeljna Dalmacija," Franc Visnar concluded that "the new Croat-Serb conflict would have appalling consequences with the amount of bloodshed and destruction such as the one seen in the Eight Year War between Iran and Iraq." Referring to 'cruelness of geopolitical and military reality' Visnar advocated "a peace option and necessary concessions." Two days before the action in the area of Mount Velebit, retired General Karl Gorinseg warned that the Croatian Army was not strong enough to militarily break Krajina, especially as it lacks rocket systems and heavy weaponry, and that Serbs were fortified well, even though the morale was lower than in 1991.
General Bobetko must have taken all this into account. If there is willingness that Zagreb solves the problem of Krajina by military means, then the population has better be prepared for suffering and destruction, even more so as Zagreb will be the one to initiate the action. Although Croatia has significantly larger manpower at her disposal as compared with Krajina and can choose the place of attack, the Croatian Army Headquarters has to take into account that Croatian soldiers will storm concrete bunkers, mine fields and dug in tanks. That's why it is not surprising that General Bobetko opted for an offensive in the area of Mount Velebit which was not properly fortified, i.e. is defended by few people, according to Serb sources. This considered, General Janko Bobetko's statement to Croatian Television gains in importance. He said, "This operation is important because a Croat soldier has shown his stamina."
In January 1993 after the Maslenica action there was a theory that the Croatian authorities would thus bit by bit snatch off pieces of Krajina. Diplomatic outrage thus raised would last for some time only and eventually die down. The Serb population would simultaneously be displaced from those areas, and, because other towns in Krajina could not accept them due to thier economies, proceed towards the Serb Republic in Bosnia where they need people. Croatia would thus carry out ethnic cleansing. It is perhaps this what Krajina leaders had in mind when they ordered that Croatian towns are fired on from all available weapons and to offer resistance regardless of the price, or perhaps because of reactions in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia to the latest escalation of violence.
The Yugoslav and Serbian authorities did not overwork themselves in giving help to their Krajina brethren. The first important statement came from the cabinet of Yugoslav Prime Ministers several days after break-out of hostilities: one could hear that the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia condemned "Croatian aggression," but it continued to support the Vance plan and a peaceful solution through negotiations. And that was all. No one mentioned military obligations of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia insisted upon in January this year and of which Djordje Bjegovic, the Prime Minister of Krajina, reminded his Yugoslav counterpart a day earlier. Similar statements could be heard at the press conference of the Serbian Socialist Party (SPS), while new Chief-of-Staff of the Yugoslav Army, General Momcilo Perisic, did not think it necessary to make a statement. All this prompted Vojislav Kostunica, the leader of the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), to notice that "Thorvald Stoltenberg seemed to be the only one defending the Serbs," and that the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia's attitude towards the events in the Republic of Serb Krajina (RSK) was the same as if RSK were some African country.
Krajina leaders couldn't help linking such state of affairs with growing speculations that Serbia, exhausted by sanctions, is giving up on them. The total war which they can still cause and pull FRY into bloodshed is their only lifebelt. It seems that Knin's reasoning is simple: because of the current political reasons at home (such as Vojislav Seselj, the leader of the Serbian Radical Party (SRS) and his radicals, but also the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS)) the Serbian President, regardless of all possible agreements with his Croatian counterpart, is not in a position to do a somersault and hand them over to the negotiating wheel. The only thing they could get is a territorial autonomy to which they are not ready to agree right now. The official policy in Zagreb gives them more reason to believe in their conviction.
Who knows, the action in the Velebit area may have been agreed in Geneva as a test to Serbian and Croatian public, while the escalation of violence came as one of unpredictable factors. According to reports coming in before this issue was closed the situation is calming down. Croatia has agreed to withdraw, and Krajina to UNPROFOR control of disputable villages. The pressure of the international community (escalation of war is out of the question when signing of peace in B-H is at hand) and the prospects of the Iran-Iraq war have done their share. So, what did we have? One temporary opportunity for letting the Serb-Croat blood. No doubt, there will be another opportunity for it eventually.