Siege of Bihać

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Location
44°49'00"N
015°52'00"E
Country
 Bosnia and Herzegovina
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Description

The Siege of Bihać was a three-year-long siege of the northwestern Bosnian town of Bihać by the Army of the Republika Srpska, the Army of the Republic of Serbian Krajina and Bosniak dissenters led by the Bosniak politician Fikret Abdić during the 1992–95 Bosnian War. The siege lasted for three years, from June 1992 until 4–5 August 1995, when Operation Storm ended it after the Croatian Army (HV) overran the rebel Serbs in Croatia and northwest of the besieged town. The Research and Documentation Center in Sarajevo established that the communities that were under siege – Bihać, Bosanska Krupa, Cazin and Velika Kladuša – had 4,856 killed or missing persons from 1991 to 1995.

Timeline

1992

After the secessionist Serb Republic of Serbian Krajina was proclaimed in 1991 on the west, the inhabitants of Bihać were prevented from crossing into that territory. Additionally, after Bosnian Serbs proclaimed the Republika Srpska in 1992 on the east, the communities of Bihać, Bosanska Krupa, Cazin and Velika Kladuša found themselves surrounded on both sides. The two Serbian armies cooperated in order to capture the Bosniak pocket in the middle of them. It was blockaded and bombarded by the Serbian forces starting on 12 June 1992. As a consequence, the residents of Bihać were forced to live in shelters, without electricity or a water supply, receiving only limited food-relief. Hunger would occasionally break out. The Bihać county declared a state of emergency and formed its own resistance army, the V Corps. Although he did not have any military education, Tomislav Dretar, an ethnic Croat, organized the defense of Croats in the Bihać area, became the president of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) of Bihać, established the Croatian Defense Council (HVO) of Bihać and the Bihać area on 28 July 1992 in the village of Šmrekovac in the municipality of Velika Kladuša and become the First President and Military Commander as an officer with the title of Colonel. The Croatian units numbered a total of 1,200 men organized as smaller units within the Fifth Bihać Corps as an autonomous Croatian military component. Under his command the Croatian HVO units were a component of the Army of Republic Bosnia and Herzegovina. A shell fired from Serb positions in the hill exploded in the town centre on 11 August 1992, next to a building converted into a shelter for Bosniak women and children. It killed five people, including three children, and wounded 24. Eight people needed amputations. The director of the town's hospital said that "all of the casualties were big operations". The inhabitants of Bihać, armed with little except old rifles, had no means of retaliating. Instead, as on every day since 12 June, when the Army of the Republika Srpska first began to bombard Bihać, people simply did their best to carry away the wounded and clear up the wreckage. A secretary said it "took hours to wash away the blood". Almost every day, the Serbs fired more shells, some in the morning, some in the afternoon, and some at night. On one day in August, shelling lasted from 6.40 pm until well after midnight.The region had a mainly Bosniak population and, since the outbreak of armed conflict, had received some 35,000 displaced persons, most of them coming from Serb controlled areas around Banja Luka and Sanski Most in the summer of 1992. In return, most of the Serbs, some 12,000 before the war, left Bihać for Banja Luka at the same time.

1993

The designation of Srebrenica as a safe area was extended on 6 May 1993 to include five other Bosnian towns: Sarajevo, Tuzla, Žepa, Goražde and Bihać. The Bosnian President, Alija Izetbegović, dismissed the concept. He said the havens would become death traps, where refugees, thinking they were safe, would instead become easy targets for Bosnian Serb forces.Bihać had few food convoys throughout the three years, with only the occasional airlift reaching the town's inhabitants. The wreckage of the bombing lay all around. Sandbags were piled high against houses and bunkers were dotted on street corners. Almost half of the population was drafted into the Army to defend the area. Cars almost disappeared from the streets of what was once a relatively prosperous community. There was nowhere to go and little fuel. The post office was piled high with sandbags. Almost every telephone line had been cut since 1991. The deployment of UN troops in the area did not help: Serbian forces inside the UN-protected zone in Croatia hijacked an aid convoy heading for Bihać in April 1993. UN refugee officials stood by helplessly as the Serbs made off with 19 tons of food, mainly ready-to-eat meals, and distributed the food to Croatian Serb civilians. The journalist Marcus Tanner cynically commented how the Serbs from the 'UN protected' Krajina were shelling Bihać, a 'UN safe area'.The Bihać area, which contained 170,000 people, had been denied support from UN aid convoys since May 1993. By 1993, the enclave hosted 61,000 displaced or refugees from other parts of Bosnia, amounting to 27 percent of its entire population. The entire Bihać area had only one hospital that had exhausted the last of its food and medical reserves by December 1994, so that the feeding of the sick and wounded, more than 900 patients, was limited to one meal per day. Treatment was given only to the most desperate cases whereas operations were being performed under local anesthesia. In this situation, without the necessary food and medicines, infectious diseases were spreading- tuberculosis, intestinal diseases, hepatitis, vitamin A deficiency. The hospital was no longer in a position to help the inhabitants of the area.The enclave was additionally weakened when rebel Bosniak forces led by Fikret Abdić joined the Serbs in the fighting and created the Autonomous Province of Western Bosnia in the north.

1994

The territory of Western Bosnia was seized by the Bosnian government troops in 1994, but they were expelled later that year with the significant help of the Serbs, and the Autonomous Province of Western Bosnia was re-established. By 27 November 1994, advancing Serb forces took around a third of the zone. Fighting raged less than 500 yards from the Bihać hospital and moved closer to the headquarters of the Bosnian Fifth Corps. However, the UN Security Council had failed to reach agreement on a draft statement that would condemn the Serbs' shelling of and entry into Bihać and call for their withdrawal. The US plan to relieve the city was rejected by France and Britain. Bosnian-Serb forces first set a deadline of 19.00 GMT on 26 November for the town's defenders to surrender. They later amended this with a new offer for Bosnian-Muslim troops to surrender to Fikret Abdić's forces. But the mayor of Bihać, Hamdija Kabiljagić, rejected the surrender, saying "it would be the signal for mass slaughter by the Serbs". Bihać's citizens then proceeded to blockade the streets with trees and burned out cars.Michael Williams, a spokesman for the United Nations peacekeeping force, said that the village of Vedro Polje west of Bihać had fallen to a Croatian Serb unit in late November 1994. Williams added that heavy tank and artillery fire against the town of Velika Kladuša in the north of the Bihać enclave was coming from the Croatian Serbs. Moreover, Western military analysts said that among the impressive array of Bosnian-Serb surface-to-air missile systems that surrounded the Bihać pocket on Croatian territory, there was a modernized SAM-2 system whose degree of sophistication suggested that it was probably brought there recently from Belgrade.Since Operation Deny Flight did not allow fighter jets to be used in Bosnia, the Army of the Republika Srpska took advantage of the ban by outsourcing air strikes to the Army of Srpska Krajina: they launched air strikes with aircraft based at a former Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) military airport in Udbina, south of Bihać, located in Croatian territory that was at the time controlled by the Republic of Serbian Krajina. The Serb aircraft dropped napalm and cluster bombs. Although most of the ordnance came from old, unreliable stocks and failed to explode, the attacks were a clear violation of the no-fly zone. NATO immediately looked for ways to respond, but its forces were not permitted to carry out operations in Croatian airspace, and due to Bihać's proximity to the border, Serb aircraft could attack into Bosnia, then cross back into Croatia before being intercepted. As such, NATO was powerless to stop the incursions. In recognition of the situation, the Security Council passed Resolution 958, which allowed NATO aircraft to operate in Croatia. Under the cool leadership of the UNHCR Director of Logistics Operations, Peter Walsh, the refugee agency managed to breach the blockade in December 1994 and get 100 tonnes of valuable food aid into the pocket. This was a difficult task hampered by persistent small arms and artillery fire as well as unnecessary freedom of movement violations. The aid was delivered to Cazin for distribution throughout the region. The United Nations Security Council Resolution 959 "expressed concern about the escalation in recent fighting in the Bihać pocket and the flow of refugees and displaced persons resulting from it" and condemned the "violation of the international border between the Republic of Croatia and the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina and demands that all parties and others concerned, and in particular the so-called Krajina Serb forces, fully respect the border and refrain from hostile acts across it".

1995

The enclave came under heavy tank and mortar fire again on 23 July 1995 in what UN officials described as "the most serious fighting in Bosnia in months". Thousands of rebel troops, backed by 100 tanks, attacked the Bosniak forces there.The United Nations General Assembly also addressed the issue: Military exercise activities intensified after the Bosnian Army 5th Corps engaged Serbian troops in western Bosnia (Bihać region). At the same time, "SVK" started with large-scale preparations for offensive actions in the western Bosnia theatre of operations.... In September 1994, 700 to 800 volunteers from Serbia were trained in the Slunj area for combat action in western Bosnia.

UNPROFOR in Bihac

On 14 September 1992, UNPROFOR was given a mandate by the United Nations Security Council to protect humanitarian relief convoys as requested by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and provide ground transportation for difficult routes (UNPROFOR phase 2, resolution 743). An "escort battalion" was then formed by France, and sent in October and November 1992, with 1350 soldiers and 115 light armored vehicles. The main base was in Coralici (1 infantry coy, 1 cavalry coy with 18 ERC-90 Sagaie, 1 engineer Coy, battalion HQ), logistic base in Velika-Kladusa (1 infantry coy, 1 logistic and support coy) and a forward operating base in Bihac (1 infantry coy). 1rst mandate : October 1992 – May 1993 – 126th Infantry Regiment (France), 1st Marine Infantry Regiment – CO : Colonel Bresse 2nd mandate : May 1993 – October 1993 92e RI, 1st Parachute Hussar Regiment 3rd mandate : October 1993 – May 1994 – formed from the 99e RI, 1st Spahi Regiment. 3 casualties (fatal). 4th mandate : May 1994 – October 1994 – formed from the 2nd Armored Division (5e RI, 2 inf coy, 1 HQ & Support coy + RMT elements, 4th RD, 1 armored coy, engineer coy, 24e RI, 1 infantry coy). CO : Colonel Fredéric Decquen. No casualties.The French left in October and November 1994 and were replaced by a battalion from Bangladesh.

End of siege

After the fall of the Srebrenica and Žepa enclaves in eastern Bosnia in July 1995, Croatia started massing soldiers near Serb positions outside the enclave as Serb forces with tanks and artillery bombarded the Bosnian government's lines. The goal was to prevent the fall of the Bihać enclave. Likewise, the Croatian and Bosnian leaderships signed a mutual defence treaty—the Split Agreement. The siege ended with Operation Storm on 4–5 August 1995 conjoined with Bosnian forces under General Atif Dudaković. Dudaković said: "We needed Operation Storm as much as Croatia did". After the end of siege, food supplies and medical aid started arriving in the area from Bosnia and Croatia, which normalized the lives of the people living there.

Legal proceedings

International Tribunal

The ICTY indicted Slobodan Milošević for participating in a joint criminal enterprise, on the grounds that he "planned, instigated, ordered, committed or otherwise aided and abetted the planning, preparation or execution of persecutions of non-Serbs, principally Bosnian Muslim and Bosnian Croats" and "aided and abetted the planning, preparation or execution of the extermination, murder and wilful killings of non-Serbs, principally Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats", among them within the territories of Bihać.General Ratko Mladić was also indicted on the grounds that he "planned, instigated, ordered, committed or otherwise aided and abetted the planning, preparation or execution of the persecution of the Bosnian Muslim, Bosnian Croat or other non-Serb populations", among them in Bihać-Ripač.

Domestic trials

The government of Bosnia-Herzegovina charged Fikret Abdić with the deaths of 121 civilians, three POWs and the wounding of 400 civilians in the Bihać region. Croatian authorities arrested him and put him on trial. In 2002, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison for war crimes committed in the area of the "Bihać pocket". In 2005, the Croatian Supreme Court reduced his sentence to 15 years. After having served ten years of his fifteen-year sentence, Abdić was released on 9 March 2012 and upon leaving prison he was greeted by 3,000 of his supporters.In 2012, the Bihać Cantonal court sentenced five former soldiers of the VRS to a total of 56,5 years in prison for murdering 25 Bosniak civilians in the villages of Duljci and Orašac in September 1992.
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