May 8, 1995 Vreme News Digest Agency No 188

Croatian Thunder

The Fall of Western Slavonia

by Milos Vasic, Milan Milosevic, Uros Komlenovic, Petar Svacic, Filip Svarm and VREME Documentary Center

What began in Western Slavonia in December 1991 ended on Tuesday, May 2 (the anniversary of the incident at Borovo Selo): in a blitzkrieg attack Croatian army and police troops cut the first UNPA off from the Sava river and then battled the rest of the 18th Western Slavonia corps

The surprise was complete: a glance backwards recalls the Okucani incidents on the highway on April 29 and 30, Martic's demonstrative blockade of the road and a statement by Zlatko Canjuga (general secretary of the Croatian democratic Union (HDZ on April 27) who said there will be elections in Croatia and that the Croatian army would have opened the highway if Martic had left it closed.

The surprise was also helped by Krajina (RSK) president Milan Martic and his chief of staff general Milan Celeketic who made encouraging speeches in Pakrac and Okucani before last weekend's incident in which they claimed that "not a foot of Serb land" would be handed to anyone.

The incident came amid that optimistic mood on the night of April 29-30 on the highway: a Serb was killed in a fight at a gas station; Serbs then opened fire on Croatian vehicles and the highway was closed. The next day, Sunday, all three interested parties (the RSK, Croatia and UN) reached agreement relatively quickly on reopening the highway on Monday, May 1 at 6:00 am. The incidents were interpreted with moderation and on Sunday night things were never better. A few more incidents occurred on the night of April 30-May 1, the gravest an attack on a Croatian passenger car. The forgiving mood was dominant on the Serb side that night and everyone slept well.

At 2:30 am on Monday May 1, the UN commander of Sector West (Western Slavonia) was handed a letter from the Croatian army's operations chief asking him to get his blue berets into cover. At 4:00 am, deputy UN commander Ray Crabbe was informed that Croatian troops would start an attack on Western Slavonia soon. at 4:30 am the UN peacekeepers were ordered to withdraw back to their bases; the dawn was foggy and quiet with some rain.

At 5:30 am (Serb and Croat sources, the UN says 6:00) the Croatian artillery started. A fierce shelling was launched on a depot in the Serb part of Pakrac and then on all RSK 18th Western Slavonia corps positions along the planned lines of advance.

UN soldiers reported seeing some 250 troops with 10 tanks near Novska and Nova Gradiska at around 6:15 am. The Croatian force (the elite 101 and 103 guards brigades and special police units from Lucko and Rakitje totaling 3,500 men and 20 tanks) coordinated their attacks from the West (Novska), northwest (Pakrac) and east (Nova Gradiska).

Their goal seemed to be clear at first: cutting off Western Slavonia from the Sava river which joins the RSK and Bosnian Serb Republic (RS), capturing communication lines (the highway, railroad) between Novska and Nova Gradiska, overcome the defenders in small pockets.

That's what happened: at 10:45 Croatian troops took key heights southwest of Pakrac and soon entered Jasenovac along their southern line of attack almost without resistance. During the day the Croatian air force lost two helicopter gunships and a third was damaged. Two MiG 21 bombers tried to destroy the bridge between Stara Gradiska and Bosanska Gradiska; they failed and one was downed. At dusk there was just 10 kilometers separating the troops advancing along the highway from Novska and Nova Gradiska (of the 40 that were in Serb hands); they were just four kilometers from Okucani. Some 2,000 UN troops drew back as far as they could but a Croatian tank grenade managed to wound three Jordanians. Serb soldiers detained some 120 UN soldiers and civilian police and let them go on Tuesday.

It seems the RSK 18th corps was caught sleeping; they managed to pull back into the hills and launch 16 artillery shells at Kutina and Nova Gradiska. They also managed to take their heavy weapons from a depot near the highway just before the Croatians got there. What they failed to do was mount a strong frontal defence along the key line of attack; the highway and railroad. That was enough to separate them from the Sava and both bridges across the river near Jasenovac and Stara Gradiska. They were cut off in the hills between Novska, Pakrac and Okucani.

That was when it was clear that the whole thing was over: the 15,000 strong population of the former UNPA zone West were left defenseless. Refugees did not wait to be counted: at least 6,000 people started across the river, using the bridge at Jasenovac as long as possible and the Stara Gradiska bridge all the time.

Branko Bosanac, mayor of Okucani died in the fighting near the village of Rajcici on the confrontation line.

An exodus identical to the one in December 1991 began.

In Political terms, Croatia claimed from the start that this was a "limited police action" to secure traffic along the highway and reopen the railroad (the Serbs stopped restoration work on the parts of the railroad under their control because "it endangers the RSK," Martic said).

President Tudjman's spokeswoman Natasa Rajakovic said on Monday that "there will be no cease-fire until we establish control over the length of the highway". Faced with persistent testimony by UN peacekeepers, the Croatian authorities on Monday night admitted that it wasn't just their police in action but also "territorial defence forces".

Croatian foreign minister Mate Granic sent a letter to his German counterpart Klaus Kinkel claiming this was a limited operation "which will be ended as soon as possible as planned" and promising that the war won't spill over into other Serb territories in Croatia.

That Monday afternoon Serb artillery shelled Sisak, Karlovac and the area around Dubrovnik. There were no casualty reports; seven shells landed near Dubrovnik and seven around the Cilipi airport. Martic threatened that the Serbs "won't just defend ourselves but will attack where we think we have to".

On Tuesday, May 2 at around 10:30 am between seven and nine 262 mm rockets landed on Zagreb. They had cluster bomb warheads which are banned as inhumane. Four of them fell in central Zagreb killing some, wounding others and starting fires; some 10 people were killed (foreign correspondents allegedly said the numbers were reduced by the Zagreb authorities), over 100 wounded and 150 cars destroyed. The RSK army general staff refused to comment the attack but Martic's advisor Slobodan Jarcevic said the whole thing was suspicious, mentioned similar staged attacks in Sarajevo and accused the Croats of faking the attack.

Belgrade newspapers military commentators Miroslav Lazanski and Ljubodrag Stojadinovic identified the missiles the same afternoon and removed any doubts that they were launched by the Krajina Serbs. Martic embarrassed Jarcevic the next day in Banja Luka when he claimed responsibility for the attack.

On Tuesday, May 2 in Western Slavonia refugees were running, 18th corps soldiers were desperately trying to regroup and the Croatian troops were tightening the noose.

The missiles in Zagreb didn't help at all: Okucani fell at around 13:30.

That evening things slowly became clearer: organized resistance was localized in the Pakrac-Seovica-Kraguj-Brusnik area and on Omanovac hill above Pakrac: some 600 soldiers under the command of colonel Harambasic and an unspecified number of civilians (allegedly some 5,000) were resisting fiercely from the hills. In other parts of Western Slavonia the resistance was only sporadic with elements of panic. The commander of 18th corps positions at Bijela Stijena where the Croatians cut off the Pakrac Okucani road, lt. colonel Zoran Miscevic went to Stara Gradiska to report to his command and was detained there so he didn't get back to his unit; some say he was detained on purpose.

That evening, UN reports say, the first negotiations began: the Croats called them surrender talks, the Serbs truce talks. Colonel Harambasic for the Serbs and deputy prime minister Ivica Kostovic fro the Croatians with UNCRO mediation. At state level, Yasushi Akashi tried to organize a meeting of RSK prime minister Borislav Mikelic and the Croatian president's cabinet chief Hrvoje Sarinic (they have a relationship formed during lengthy talks on economic issues).

On the night of Tuesday, May 2, things were crystal clear: Western Slavonia is lost militarily and politically things are very bad.

On Wednesday, May 3, the UN said a cease-fire agreement for the entire RSK-Croatia confrontation line had been signed. The number of combatants surrounded in the hills above Pakrac was estimated at 450. Unlike many great patriots who fled, Veljko Dzakula and Mladen Kulic (both once persecuted and arrested in the RSK for signing an agreement with Croatia) stayed with the surrounded refugees. Civilian numbers were not available.

During the afternoon there was an upset over the wording of the agreement: ISKRA news agency in Knin published one version, Zagreb news agencies published another. The Knin version omitted the part that said the Western Slavonia Serbs could withdraw into the RS through the Pakrac-Okucani-Dubovac-Nova Varos-Stara Gradiska corridor under UNCRO and UNHCR overseeing but combatants can only take their sidearms along. This was a demobilization: who wants to, can stay, others can leave.

On Wednesday evening Mikelic confirmed that part of the agreement saving face and the surrender of heavy weapons began. That suits the Croatians: the more Serbs leave Western Slavonia the better as far as they're concerned. Croatia agreed to "withdraw to initial positions" interpreting that as a withdrawal of only the army while the police stayed behind to set up stations.

On Wednesday night it was finally clear that Croatia has no intention of giving up Western Slavonia. Tudjman issued a proclamation to "Croats and citizens of Croatia" which he read on TV saying this was a "great victory over the Serb Chetniks and their Yugo communist helpers" and retaining the right to deal with the "ruthless terrorists" sooner or later.

Earlier that afternoon five more rockets landed on Zagreb killing one and wounding another 40 people. The missiles landed near the Croatian national theater where a ballet troupe of Russians and Ukrainians was rehearsing.

Foreign media and governments spent more time condemning the attacks on Zagreb than the Croatian aggression.

The fall of Western Slavonia began in December 1991; this is just the logical end to the process. The local communities in the region had 70,000 Serbs but no Serb majority in any one municipality since all just took parts of the ethnically compact Western Slavonia. In the autumn of 1991, Serb controlled territories there were at least twice as large; the territories where the Serbs were an overwhelming majority where at least three times the size of the territory lost last week. Control means military control here; the Western Slavonians were armed by everyone; the Serbian police, former Yugoslav army (JNA), League of Communists-Movement for Yugoslavia (SK-PJ) and semi-private channels organized by retired local generals like Dusan Pekic and others. Called to arms, stirred up and afraid the Western Slavonians took firm hold (in their best partisan tradition) of the Psunj and Papuk mountains up to Virovitica.

Early in December 1991, just after Vukovar, Slavonia and Baranja fell they were ordered out of areas northeast of Pakrac by the JNA and into Banja Luka. That exodus is one of the most disturbing stories to come out of the 1991 war on the Serb side. It turned out later that this was the first example of the "humane exchange of populations: the Western Slavonians were not in the right place and they were moved to Baranja.

Veljko Dzakula, prominent local politician, said he had been told by then chairman of the national assembly of Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Western Srem Ilija KOncarevic and some Serbian ministers that Western Slavonia would be assimilated into Croatia.

RSK foreign minister Milan Babic said informally once that as far as he is concerned "there are no Serbs north of the Sava river". Even RS leader Radovan Karadzic offered to trade Western Slavonia (which was never his) for Orasje (which is Croat) but later denied it.

Those 30,000 Western Slavonians were moved all over the RS, Serbia and UNPA sector East following protests in Banja Luka and Belgrade. Now it's the turn of the people who stayed behind since virtually none of them want to stay.