Serbo-Croatian War / Homeland War
The fall of communism brought uncertainty to Yugoslavia in 1990. It encouraged nationalist sentiments in all of its republics. Croatia held a referendum for independence on 18 May 1990, which showed that 93 percent of the population favored Croatia’s statehood. The separation of Croatia proved problematic for Belgrade, which supported political and military insurrection of Serbs in Krajina. In Croatia, the elections produced a massive victory for Franjo Tudjman and his nationalist Croatian Democratic Union party. This group had proclaimed its aversion to both the ethnic Serbs living in Croatia and those living in Serbia. The move was spurred largely by the election of Serb nationalist Slobodan Milosevic as Serbian Communist Party leader. Milosevic's rhetoric and repression of the Albanian population in Kosovo frightened the other republics.
The nationalist fervor in Croatia led to great tension among Croats and Serb ethnic groups, who still held centuries-old prejudices against each other despite living together under communism. Ethnic Croatian Serbs, in particular, feared the reincarnation of a pro-Nazi Independent State of Croatia. Similarly, Tudjman and other Croats believed that the Serbs held designs on incorporating Croatian territory, particularly the region of Krajina, into a "Greater Serbia."
The tension and bickering between the two republics eventually led to sporadic fighting in Croatia. In 1991, Serbian separatists in Croatia began a series of attacks on Croatian police units, killing more than 20 by in the first four months. That May, Serbia upped the ante by blocking the installation of Stipe Mesic, a Croat scheduled to be the chairman of the rotating presidency in Yugoslavia. This maneuver technically left the Yugoslavia without a leader.
Blocked by Serbia in its attempt to restructure Yugoslavia as a loose federation, the Republic of Croatia declared its independence on June 25, 1991, and sought international recognition. That action was seized upon by the authorities in Belgrade to unleash the overwhelmingly Serbian-led Yugoslav National Army (JNA) against Croatian towns and cities in order to destroy the fledgling Croatian state or leave it crippled indefinitely. They established control over a number of areas where Croats of Serbian nationality were predominant as well as over areas where Serbs had been in a minority. The JNA was assisted in this effort by paramilitary forces who invaded from Serbia and from Montenegro and by local Serbian irregulars. These units were often organized and led by regular JNA officers or their surrogates and all were directly supplied with weapons and ammunition by the JNA.
Full-scale fighting between Croats and Serbs occurred almost immediately, with Yugoslavia's mostly ethnic Serb military backing the Serbian separatists that were fighting in Krajina. Serbian expansion came quickly, as Yugoslav planes strafed and rocketed Croatian villages while insurgents overtook Kostajnica. By the end of 1991, the Serbs had gained control of nearly one-third of the country. During this time, the Serbs created the Republic of Serbian Krajina in central and northeastern Croatia.
In the early days of Croatia’s war for independence, many hastily assembled units were no more than groups of friends from a town organized into makeshift infantry units. These units in turn made up the brigades that fought the major actions of the war. These men, many of whom had no formal military training, learned their trade by trial and error, sometimes with grave consequences.
In January 1992, the United Nations was able to administer a truce between the two sides and sent in a peacekeeping force, UNPROFOR. At the time the agreement went into place, the Serbs held roughly 30% of the former Yugoslav Republic of Croatia, and the UN agreement froze this status quo, which also left many Croatians as refugees from their homes in the Republic of Serbian Krajina [RSK] as part of Serbian ethnic cleansing. There were reports of homes being looted and burned, as well as other atrocities committed against Croat civilians. Ancillary to the agreement the United Nations and European Community recognized Croatia as an independent state in January of 1992. United Nations peacekeepers, had difficulty disarming combatants inside the internationally protected areas set up under the agreement.
At the end of March 1992, the Croatian armed forces were ready to change the unsustainable state of the grounds. Thus began the second phase of the Homeland War, which would see a number of liberation operations which were to change the strategic balance of forces. The first goal was to lift the blockade on Dubrovnik and free southern Croatia. Croatian forces’ most important actions in that area were operations Scorched Earth, Tiger, Liberated Land, Descent on Cavtat and Vlaštica.
As tensions continued to smolder in Croatia in mid-1992, an all-out war broke out in neighboring Bosnia between the republic's ethnic Serbs, Muslims and Croats. The Bosnian conflict drew in participants from all sides, including Croatia, which backed the Bosnian Croats in their fight mainly with Bosnian Serbs but also in sporadic conflicts with its supposed ally, the Bosnian Muslims. In late 1992, Croatian army forces began attacking Bosnian Serb communities in southeastern Bosnia Herzegovina, unraveling a Bosnian-declared cease-fire. Croatian army forces would later break Croatia's one-year-old cease-fire as well in January 1993, crossing a U.N. dividing line and attacking Serb-occupied territory in Krajina.
In early 1993, with the aim of joining continental and southern Croatia, the Croatian Army began Operation Maslenica. In only 72 hours the army liberated a number of occupied villages in Zadar’s hinterland as well as dominant positions on Mount Velebit. In the Sinj area, Croatian forces librated the Peruca power plant, which the enemy had mined and threatened to demolish, and they began Operation Medak Pocket on the Lika battlefield.
The Croatian assault brought a brief return of combat, but not a complete resumption of the all-out war that was seen in 1991. Liberation actions and operations continued throughout 1994, and each one of them helped create better conditions for the complete liberation of the entire Croatian territory. The first one of these was Operation Winter 94, followed by Operation Jump 1 and Operation Jump 2, and in order for the preconditions for the liberation of Knin to be created, There was actually a lull in Croatia for several months into early 1994 as the U.N. peacekeepers monitored the positions of Serb and Croat army forces. In March, Croatia and Serb rebels signed another cease-fire. The agreement was that both sides would withdraw their fighters away from a 600-mile confrontation line running down the middle of the country. The cease-fire would prove fleeting as the fighting in Bosnia once again tempted the Croatian army.
In late 1994, after Bosnian and Croatian Serb insurgents joined forces to launch an attack on the Muslim enclave of Bihac (located across the border from Serb-occupied Krajina), Croatia announced that it would enter the Bosnian conflict to support the Muslims. Croatia's pledge to intercede in Bosnia was not unexpected, given an early 1994 deal in which the Bosnian government and the Croatians agreed to combined efforts to fight the ethnic Serbs. Croatia had an added incentive because of Bihac's proximity to Zagreb, the Croatian capital, which Croatian did not want to see Serbs near.
At first the 1994 Serb attack on Bihac produced only skirmishes between Croatian army forces and rebel Serb forces in nearby Krajina, as the Serbs tried to cling to their gains from 1991. Having spent an estimated $1 billion to upgrade its military the since 1991, Croatia began to gain the upper hand by mid-1995, with the assistance of retired army officers and non-commissioned officers working for the U.S. defense contractor, Military Professional Resources Incorporated (MPRI).
The privatized military assistance provided to Croatia was an example of foreign policy by default. In October 1994, the Pentagon contracted with Military Professional Resources, Inc (MPRI) to train the Croatian military. The US State Department issued a license to MPRI and approved its contract in 1995. At this time, Croatia had been independent for only three years, during which time it had been engaged non-stop in a civil/cross-border war within the former Yugoslavia. With training and consultation from MPRI, the previously incompetent Croatian army was quiekcly transformed into a modern fighting force which surprised foes and observers alike with quick choreographed movements of combined artillery, armor, and infantry.
Croatia launched several offensives in 1995, re-capturing a 200-square-mile area of Krajina from the Serbs in May.In the early morning hours of 01 May 1995, special police units and government troops initiated "Operation Flash," an attack to liberate occupied Western Slavonia. Announced as a "limited police action" to gain control of the Zagreb-Lipovac highway, government forces gained effective control of most of the area within one day and a ceasefire was reached on the afternoon of 03 May. HV troops restricted the movement of UNCRO forces and surrounded most UN bases, including a Jordanian base along the highway and a Nepalese base at Pustara. Although tensions had been building for many weeks, the direct pretext for the attack was the murder of three Croats.
The rebel Serb forces reacted by shelling several cities, including Zagreb, Dubrovnik, Karlovac, Kutina, Nova Gradiska, Novska, Pakrac, Osijek, Sisak, and Zupanja. Zagreb was shelled on two separate occasions with Orkan anti-personnel cluster bombs. Among the sites hit were a children's hospital and the national theater. "RSK President" Milan Martic publicly announced that he had personally issued the order for the capital to be shelled. Days later, he threatened again to "flatten the city" and kill "one hundred thousand people." [In October 1995, Martic was indicted with two other "RSK officials" by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) for this incident.
Over seven thousand refugees fled in front of advancing HV troops over the only bridge across the Sava river to Serb-held Bosnia. Government forces left this road open to allow the inhabitants to evacuate. A pocket of Serbs unable to leave the northern part of the sector was surrounded by HV forces and surrendered.
In July 1995, the Croats sent several thousand troops some 50 miles into Bosnia, a maneuver that cut off a key Serb supply route to Krajina. Throughout the long, wrenching saga of Yugoslavia's breakup, the leap from simple recognition that no side is without blame to the policy-stultifying conclusion of virtual moral equivalence has been made far too often and too quickly. Croatian forces in Bosnia did not engaged in ethnic cleansing -- either as a matter of policy directed by senior leaders or as a widespread practice on the ground. This is not to say that in isolated instances in B-H Muslims and Serbs have not fled in the face of Croatian arms. Certain Croatian elements, notably Hos, did engage in isolated crimes as heinous as some of those routinely committed by Bosnian Serb forces. But there is no evidence of Croatian forces engaging in ethnic cleansing as that term is now usefully applied to the conclusively-documented Bosnian Serb practice of: bombarding a village from afar, entering it in a showy display of military force, immediately committing such terrorizing public atrocities as slitting a dozen or so persons' throats on their doorstep and raping a young girl or two in front of their families and other townsfolk in the public square, then transporting the men and boys to torture and death camps and the women and girls to Serbian military brothels.
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