Published in Nacional number 561, 2006-08-14

Autor: Eduard Šoštarić


Investigation launched into Operation Una

During HV attacks on Bosanska Dubiva and Bosanski Novi on 18 and 19 September 1995, 40 Serbian civilians were allegedly killed

On 8 August 2006, Sisak County Prosecutor Stipe Vrdoljak requested all information from the Sisak-Moslavina police on the military oepration 'Una' that took place on the territory of Republika Srpska from Bosanska Dubica-Bosanska Kostajnica-Bosanski Novi along the Croatian border on 18 and 19 September 1995.

The reason behind this request is an allegation of war crimes committed during this operation by Croatian troops against 40 Serbian civilians from Bosanska Dubica and Bosanski Novi. In the operation, 49 members of the 1st and 2nd Guard Brigades of the Croatian army also lost their lives. Of these, 44 HV soldiers have been identified, 5 are listed as missing and thought to have drown in the Una River while attempting to swim back to Croatian territory. The Serbian Committee for war crimes compiled its report in 1998 on the alleged murder of 40 Serbian civilians in the Bosanska Dubica area when Croatian soldiers entered that territory during combat.

The investigation will aim to determine whether or not these civilian victims were killed by firm arm at close range, and whether there is documentation based on autopsies conducted on the bodies. Also, certain non-governmental organizations visited the victims' families at the end of the 1990s and collected information on the circumstances surrounding the deaths of their loved ones.

Nacional has learned that the Serbian side intends to reopen the issue of Croatian war crimes during operation Una. They are looking to collect video recordings, witnesses and documents in an attempt to prove that the members of the 1st battalion of the 2nd Guard Brigade committed war crimes against Serbian civlians in Bosanska Dubica. This will be difficult to accomplish considering all the circumstances of the battlefields in that area, including the poor visibility during the night the operation was launched.

Furthermore, Republika Srpska at that time was in complete chaos: the medical, judicial and police officials were at work in other crisis areas and the alleged crimes were never documented. Nacional has learned that a number of Serbian civilians were killed during the artillery preparations for the Croatian attack, as the Serbian civilians population settled along the Una River was mixed with units of the army of Republika Srpska situated right on the border with Croatia. The intent was to force the RS army further back, away from the Una River, and in this attack, civilian structures were also hit. Furthermore, there was no front line here with advancing military troops, but immediately after crossing the river, battles were fought in the city neighbourhoods and it was very difficult to assess who was a soldier and who a civilian, particularly since at that time all civilians had to be armed due to the general mobilization following the poor defence of Republika Srpska which was facing disappearance at that time.

From the perspective of Croatian victims, Operation Una was one of the most tragic HV operations. The operation was personally commanded by Franjo Tudjman at the proposal of Defence Minister Gojko Susak who in turn entrusted the operation to only a handful of his high ranking officers: General Vinko Vrbanac, Admiral Davor Domazet and General Ante Gotovina. Tudjman's circle of associates decided to launch Operation Una as a surprise attack during the night, without prior consultation with the American allies who only one week earlier had prevented HV's further penetration into Banja Luka. Politically, a penetration into that city would have meant destabilization of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia who, at that time, was seen as a key figure and negotiator in favour of the final end of the war in the Balkans and this was the most important thing to the international community.

It is interesting to note that then Chief of the General Staff General Zvonomir Cervenko did not know about Operation Una. Earlier, he has assessed that Operation Una could not begin without proper preparation, as otherwise it would end in tragedy. However, Tudjman and Susak were not overly concerned with that fact. Their goal was to achieve that which they could not in southwestern B&H, to head from the northwest towards Banja Luka and to join up with the forces of the 5th Corp coming from the direction of Bosanska Krupa, thereby taking as much territory as possible to trade later. Domazet and Gotovina explained this with the fact that the 5th Corp should not be permitted to reach the Sava River. The majority of soldiers of the 1st and 2nd Guard Brigades of HV were on vacation at the time and they were called to immediately report to their units on 17 September 1995. They had no idea whey they had been summoned or where they were headed.

It is estimated that about 1500 Croatian soldiers from the Guard Brigades and just as many from the two home guard regiments. The crossing of the Una by the Croatian soldiers took place under very unfavourable conditions considering natural barriers such as the river. The Croatian troops built a bridgehead on the Una despite a flow rate of 4m/s, which is very risky. Several boats were overturned, however, the 1st and 2nd Guard Brigades succeeded in entering Bosanska Dubica and Bosanski Novi and conquering parts of the towns. The Croatian tanks were also prepared to cross the Una. However, they were met by a well hidden Serbian army that began to fire from all sides. The bridgehead was not built so well under such river conditions, nor was there sufficient strength to counter the Serbian resistance. In the meantime, the Croatian intelligence service received information that Serbian MiGs and G-4s had landed at the Mahovljani airport in Banja Luka from Belgrade and were intended to attack the Croatian forces already in RS territory.

Transcripts found in the Office of the President reveal that on 18 September 1995, a very upset Zvonimir Cervenko, Chief of Staff, entered the President's office at 10:50 am. When Tudjman asked, “General, go ahead, what is it?”, Cervenko couldn't hold back. “Mr. President, I don't want to explain anything, I am only here to give you this and explain that these activities are going on without my involvement and without my knowledge. To warn what should be done down there, to avoid certain unwanted things from happening. I have brought a map. If need be, Mr. President, I will take Kragujevac, I will be the first one there, but I demand that it be with coordination and with logic.” Obviously, General Cervenko had no knowledge that Operation Una had started before arriving at work that morning. “Mr. President, I want to know what the objective of the operation is, what should be taken and how. I will carry it out, Mr. President,” he continued. Cervenko was completely convinced that Tudjman lacked faith in him and that this was the reason whey he was not informed with either the decision to launch Una and the real objective behind the operation. “I will execute the operation, but I need to know something about it. That's what it's about. If I'm responsible for what happens tomorrow, if I'm going to be accountable for the dead tomorrow… I am not the type of high ranking officer who says, forgive my language, that he doesn't give a shit about how many soldiers will be killed, because they're all disposable anyway.”

On 19 September, the order was given to abort the action, not because of the American threats, but due to the bad decision and incorrect intelligence assessments on the status of the Serbian army. It is known that the members of the Croatian Guard Brigades paid the highest price, as did General Vinko Vrbanac who was accused of independently launching a military operation. Disciplinary measures were taken against him and he was later retired. The generals leading their units in the field could not influence the political and military decisions of the Croatian state leadership of the time, primarily Marijan Marekovic, commander of the IZM command post for the Una area, General Damir Gorseta and Generals Jozo Milicevic and Zvonko Peternel as commanders of the guard brigades.

>email to:Eduard Sostaric

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