Published in Nacional number 595, 2007-04-10

Autor: Eduard Šoštarić


"I was prevented twice in cutting off the Serbian corridor"

After the discovery of his 1994 letter to President Tudjman on the reasons for the fall of Posavina, the former military Chief of Staff speaks out about the reasons behind the hardest wartime loss of 1992

PETAR STIPETIC HAS BEEN ON ICE because of Posavina since 1992 PETAR STIPETIC HAS BEEN ON ICE because of Posavina since 1992 After fifteen years of silence, retired general and former Croatian Army Chief of Staff Petar Stipetic has for the first time decided to speak out for Nacional on the reasons for the fall of the Bosnian Posavina area. Stipetic told Nacional that he had been twice stopped by Croatian policy makers in his efforts to cut off the Posavina corridor, which Serbian forces were using for the transport of ammunition, fuel and weaponry, that he faced open treason and sabotage on the field, and that politicians had then marked him as the main culprit for the defeat in Posavina without establishing any facts, the reason he was harassed and belittled for the fall of Bosnian Posavina for the next two years.

Completely marginalised in the period from 1992 to 1994, he requested in the summer of 1994 a meeting with President Tudjman in order to address his status in the Armed Forces. At the meeting Tudjman told him, among other things, to draft a report on the fall of Bosnian Posavina. After Stipetic did so he no longer obstructed his professional career. Nacional has come into possession of Stipetic's four-page report in which he gave Tudjman his view of the defeat in Bosnian Posavina.

Up to know it had been known only to the Croatian public that the report existed. Only after we convinced General Stipetic that we possessed the document did he agree to an interview on the circumstances under which it was drafted and on its content. Stipetic said: "When I was relieved of the duty of Commander of the Slavonian field of operations in December of 1992 I was appointed to command the Zagreb Military District. I was at the post until around August of 1994 when I was relieved of the duty and sent to the Supreme Command without any kind of deployment. This hurt me as a person and as a professional soldier, and besides, the story had been circulating among the soldiers and officers for two years then that I was responsible for the fall of Bosnian Posavina, and that this was the reason I was being moved aside. I asked then Chief of Staff General Janko Bobetko to give me the opportunity for a meeting with President Tudjman. The meeting lasted 45 minutes and I knew that if I did not say everything I had to say at that meeting that I would not get a second chance.

The fall of Bosnian Posavina was only one of the issues we discussed. At one point I thought Tudjman might take me by the hand and throw me out of his office, but he did no such thing. He offered me a diplomatic post at our mission in Brussels, but I could not accept it, not only because I felt that there were hard battles still ahead of us for the liberation of the occupied territories, but also because of the fact that, besides Russian and German, I did not speak English. He accepted my argument and proposed Moscow, but I told him that I would have to watch out for my life every day in Moscow as back in Yugoslavia I had been put on the most wanted list. Tudjman heard me out, put his arm on my shoulder and said – General, you just go back to your job at the Supreme Command. At the end of the meeting he also told me to draft a report of my view of the fall of Bosnian Posavina and submit it to him, which I did a few days alter. After that we never spoke of the matter again." Tudjman got the four-page report from Stipetic in which he summarises what caused the fall of a large chunk of territory. In his report he singled out the political leadership of Slavonski Brod, Jozo Meter, Frano Piplovic and Zdravko Sockovic in particular for direct meddling in the command of the "Posavina" Operational Group, which had as its consequence the fall of most of Bosnian Posavina. Stipetic called it open sabotage and treason, as that same political leadership had direct influence on the Croatian Army's 108th Slavonian-Brod Brigade that, without any cause, retreated over the Sava River into Slavonski Brod on the 5th and 6th of October 1992.

GOJKO SUSAK is singled out because he ordered that only volunteers could go into Bosnia & HerzegovinaGOJKO SUSAK is singled out because he ordered that only volunteers could go into Bosnia & HerzegovinaThis led to complete chaos on the battlefield and resulted in the retreat of other units. In the letter he then singled out General Slobodan Praljak for spreading defeatism and panic among the soldiers, defence minister Gojko Susak for his command, at a critical juncture in the war, that only volunteers could go into Bosnia, and the fact that operatives of the Croatian defence ministry's Security and Information Service subordinate to Gojko Susak, and operatives of the defence ministry's Directorate for Political Activity, were separate from the Slavonian Field Command which thwarted intelligence of enemy activity within Croatian units.

We asked General Stipetic whether he today, thirteen years after the fact, still holds the same opinion of the reasons for the fall of Bosnian Posavina as those he gave in his report to Tudjman in September of 1994: "I can today confirm all that I wrote then. The reasons for the fall of Bosnian Posavina were political; the army was commanded in parallel by political structures in Slavonski Brod and the Crisis Centre on the field that is, from the military standpoint, completely unacceptable. Besides, my idea as a soldier was that by cutting off the corridor that was used to supply the Serbian forces with weaponry, fuel and ammunition, their power would be weakened not only in Bosnia but also in the occupied territories of Croatia.

Interestingly, there was never a political decision to cut off the corridor, and when I tried twice myself I was prevented in doing so and sabotaged, and after the second attempt immediately relieved of my command. The first time the 108th Brigade out of Slavonski Brod, as the chief unit of the planned offensive, left their positions overnight, without my knowledge or authorisation, and returned to Slavonski Brod. The second time was in early December of 1992 when I had already worked everything out with the Tuzla Corps of the Army of Bosnia & Herzegovina and its commander Zeljko Knez. I was unpleasantly surprised when we launched the operation, but did not hear a single bullet fired on the part of the Tuzla Corps – I was unable to even get in contact with them.

I also brought the Croatian Army's 3rd Guard's Brigade into the action but was awaited in Cerne by General Basarac who told me he had been ordered that the brigade was to stay put. I realised that my assignment in Posavina was over for good and gave more and more thought to the idea that the situation in Bosnia had already been dealt with at a meeting in Graz between Karadzic and Mate Boban. I was relieved of my duties and sent to Zagreb that same day.

In his report Stipetic paid particular attention to the 108th Brigade out of Slavonski Brod. When the Serbian offensive had been stopped in late September of 1992 after three months of heavy battle, writes Stipetic, the ground had been laid for a Croatian Army offensive with the aim of bettering the unfavourable positions of Croatian forces. The chief force in these activities was to have been the Croatian Army's 108th Brigade, which had been on R & R in the second half of September and had had its ranks replenished for an offensive.

A BOAT ON THE SAVA RIVER Petar Stipetic during a crossing of the Sava River at Zupanja in November of 1992A BOAT ON THE SAVA RIVER Petar Stipetic during a crossing of the Sava River at Zupanja in November of 1992Next to it, in the area of the village of Korace was the 111th Brigade out of Rijeka, while of the units of the Croatian Defence Council (HVO) the engagement of the 103rd Brigade out of Derventa and of the 101st Brigade out of Bosanski Brod had been foreseen, reads the report. The 108th Brigade, immediately upon its arrival on the front line, was from the 5th to 6th of October, without the knowledge or authorisation of the Slavonian Field Command and the "Posavina" Operational Group, and under very suspicious circumstances, withdrawn from its positions and transferred across the Sava River back into Slavonski Brod. Stipetic wrote in his report that General Praljak had appeared on the battlefield as early as in the phase of the retreat of Croatian soldiers from the Doboj area under pressure from Serbian forces and the attempt at an organised defence at the approaches to Derventa and Bosanski Brod, and caused a great deal of confusion in a part of the units saying that the defence was impossible and senseless, and that it was best that the units return to their barracks and Military Districts. This activity, the report reads, caused the Croatian Army's 109th Brigade from Vinkovci, the 127th Brigade from Virovitica and small parts of the units from Pozega and Osijek to withdraw from their positions.

In his interview for Nacional General Stipetic commented on the presence of Slobodan Praljak in Posavina: "I was on a tour of the units in Bosnian Posavina when I suddenly came across Slobodan Praljak. Praljak was at the time assistant minister under defence minister Gojko Susak. I asked him where he had come from and what he was doing here. Praljak answered my question saying that he had brought the boys a "zolja" anti-tank rocket which was inexplicable, because the assistant defence minister is on the battlefield, and I know nothing of it. Praljak told me he had more business to attend to and went off to the positions of the 109th Brigade which soon after withdrew from its position at his urging."

For General Stipetic it was significant that defence minister Gojko Susak had at the time issued an order that only volunteers could be engaged in Bosnia, which resulted in the refusal of the 157th and 139th Brigades out of Slavonski Brod, and the 103rd Brigade out of Krapina to cross the Sava River.

This created a vacuum in the most sensitive part of the battlefield that opened the way for Serbian forces to Bosanski Brod, claims Stipetic in his report. In this difficult position parts of the 101st and 103rd Brigades of the Croatian Defence Council deserted their positions. Numerous actions and commands issued on 6 October by the Slavonian Field Command to have parts of the 108th, 101st and 103rd Brigades return to Bosanski Brod were fruitless.

Bosanski Brod was completely empty right up to the evening hours when a small Serbian force entered it. Stipetic wrote in his report that only the political leadership of Slavonski Brod could have ordered the 108th Brigade to withdraw. He also wrote that he cannot exclude the possible complicity of a part of the staff of the "Posavina" Operational Group, but that this was in his view less likely. At the end of the report Stipetic states: "I feel that the Slavonian Field Command professionally and efficiently led the units through the "Posavina" Operational Group and that the episode surrounding Bosanski Brod was a shameful act of treason for which the guilty parties must be found as there must be a cessation of accusations levelled at persons who did all they could to carry out orders received from yourself Mr. President and from the Croatian Army Chief of Staff."

That Bosnian Posavina had been an area bartered with is demonstrated by another detail. Somewhat over a year after Croatian forces withdrew from Bosnian Posavina, on 28 November 1993, President Tudjman in discussion with defence minister Gojko Susak and Mate Boban, the president of the Croatian Community of Herceg Bosna, and speaking of the possibility that a person from the Posavina area be included in the Herceg Bosna leadership had said: "Just between us, this person would have to possess enough common sense that they would in the end perhaps understand that, however much Bosnian Posavina means to us economically and politically, but for a resolution, if we get a border on Novi Travnik, Busovaca, Bihac, and if we get a cleansed Baranja and so forth… that we can relinquish a greater part of Posavina. This person would have to think as a Croatian so that nothing happens." In a recent issue Nacional published a report drafted in late October of 1992 by a commission of the People's Defence Council of the Republic of Croatia on the circumstances and causes of the fall of Bosnian Posavina.

The report shows that the fall of Bosnian Posavina was a turning point for overall Croatian policy, and in most of its facts confirms what General Petar Stipetic wrote to Tudjman. The circumstances under which the Bosnian Posavina area was lost marked the moment in which the leading role in Croatian policy making had been entirely taken over by people from Herzegovina, i.e. defence minister Gojko Susak's people. The commission also mentions the unclear role of General Praljak, Susak's assistant at the time, who came to Posavina and led units without the knowledge of higher command centres, and witnesses had claimed that problems ensued and that there was an increased loss of territory whenever Praljak appeared on the field.

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