Miljevci plateau incident

Miljevci plateau incident
A Croatian infantryman poses in front of a road sign in Širitovci, June 21, 1992.

The Miljevci plateau incident took place on Sunday, June 21, 1992. It was a surprise attack by units of the Croatian army against separatist Serb Krajina Territorial Defense positions in the area of the Miljevci Plateau, located in the Dalmatian hinterland near Drniš, and succeeded in regaining control over some 90 km2 of Croatian territory. This operation took place in UNPA sector South and was witnessed by UNPROFOR peackeepers who did not become involved in the fighting.

This relatively minor battle, fought by formations no bigger than a company, was significant for two reasons; it was the first wholly successful offensive action by the still-fledgling Croatian army after the round of ceasefires and truces which brought a halt to the first phase of the Croatian War of Independence in early January, 1992, and the actions of the Croatian victors in the immediate aftermath of the battle are the subject of an ongoing investigation into possible war crimes.



The opening phase of the Croatian War of Independence, from July 1991 to the imposition of an uneasy UN-brokered ceasefire in early January 1992, resulted in an uneasy standstill between the fledgling Croatian state, that had gained support from the international community, but at the severe cost of losing almost a third of its territory to ethnic Serb rebels of the Republic of Serbian Krajina headquartered in Knin, openly backed by the Serbian-controlled Yugoslav People's Army (JNA), that had pressed home their near-total superiority in artillery, armour and air power over the newly formed Croatian army.

The fighting in the mountainous Dalmatian hinterland was a furious duel of unrelenting front-wide Serb pressure and frenzied Croatian holding actions and local counterattacks. The front lines left after the Operation Coast-91 made the Croatian positions at the Adriatic coast, including the major cities of Zadar and Šibenik exposed to attack from not only the Serb artillery and aircraft, but also mortar fire. All of the Dalmatian coastal cities were left without an overland link to the rest of Croatia and could only be reached by air or by sea from Rijeka, further north.

At Christmas 1991, a major combined-arms attack with artillery and armour involvement on the northern flank of the front beat the Serbs back from the outskirts of Zadar and seized the southern shore of the Maslenica Strait, the site of a key Maslenica Bridge. Croatian morale was high and preparations were underway to recapture more territory when a UN-brokered ceasefire came into effect in the first week of January, 1992, and, with it, international peacekeepers moved in to monitor the front line.

Tense ceasefire

The cease-fire which brought the bulk of the fighting to a halt gradually became resented by the Croatian units at the frontlines, who, in large part, were made up of local men who had either been forced from their homes by the fighting or had come from nearby towns and cities which the Serbs had shelled or attacked from the air. Casualties were widespread, some also in the atrocities committed by Serb forces such as the Škabrnja massacre and Bruška massacre, in locations not far from the Miljevci plateau.

As the cease-fire did not include any provision for the enforcement of compliance with its terms, violations carried no consequences - the UN forces stationed at the frontline could only report on violations, and could take action only if they came under direct attack. The Serb forces took full advantage of this, routinely pounding Zadar, Šibenik, Sinj and villages throughout the region with artillery and unguided rockets, and openly working with JNA units which, under the terms of the ceasefire, were required to withdraw to FR Yugoslavia.

Increasingly vehement Croatian protests to the UN authorities over the violations went without concrete action being taken, and resulted in the Croatian Supreme Command issuing orders to its frontline units that they may engage the enemy in response to a direct attack, in the event of a major violation of ceasefire terms, or if war crimes in progress were observed.

The battle

Miljevci on the map of Croatia, 1991/1992. Serbian-held territories are highlighted in red.

Croatian patience snapped on the Miljevci Plateau, north of Šibenik and west of Drniš in late June 1992. The villages of Miljevci were ethnically Croatian but had been occupied by Serbs in 1991. Local Croatian commanders launched an apparently impromptu attack in response to JNA troops being observed at the Serb positions opposing them; a violation of the ceasefire, and grounds to engage the enemy under the Croatian forces' standing orders.

The Croatian forces were composed of the 113th (Šibenska - of Šibenik) Infantry Brigade and 142nd (Drniška - of Drniš) Infantry Brigade of the Croatian Ground Army. On the night of June 20, advancing north, they crossed the Čikola River and climbed the Miljevci Plateau. Most of the 142nd brigade remained in reserve, while the 113th moved on.

Elements of the elite 4th Guards Brigade (Motorized) and the Ministry of Defence Special Operations Unit Bojna Zrinski were rumored to have also been involved.

Croatian Army anti-tank rocket team in position during the Miljevci Plateau action.

On the morning of June 21, units of the 113th Brigade, numbering less than 90 men in total, launched a simultaneous attack on four villages - Širitovci, Drinovci, Ključ and Bristane - held by the Krajina Serb Territorial Defense. Lieutenant Tihomir Budanko, who would later rise to the rank of General, led the lynchpin of the operation, the attack on Širitovci. While Drinovci, Ključ and Bristane formed a gentle salient arc in the Serb front line, Širitovci was several kilometres in the rear on their left flank, and astride the road linking the region with Drniš, some 10km to the east. Drniš, at the centre of the section of front arcing from the Miljevci Plateau in the west to Ogorje in the east, was home to the Serb area headquarters and most of their reserve forces. Drniš would be where Serb reinforcements would come from to counter an attack on the Miljevci Plateau, and it would be towards Drniš that the Serb frontline units would try to withdraw if the Croatian attack went well enough. Both these movements would seek to use the Širitovci-Drniš road. Seizing control of Širitovci early on in the battle would, thus, allow the Croats to block the Serbs' most likely route of both withdrawal and reinforcement.

The attack went completely to plan. Caught by surprise, the much-superior Serb force of some 300 troops crumbled and fled. Širitovci was successfully seized early on, and Lt Budanko's men were able to cut off the Serb retreat and inflict heavy losses, including a T-55 tank destroyed in combat. By the following day, the Croats were in complete control of the area, the Serbs having withdrawn overland to the north.

On June 23, the Serb forces launched a counter-attack from Drniš. This was repelled with more losses of men and armour. In retaliation, Šibenik was subjected to heavy Serb shelling.

Casualties and claims of war crimes

Serb T-55 tank destroyed in Širitovci.

Croatian sources claim Serb losses of several artillery pieces, 2 tanks, 1 armoured personnel carrier and around 80 troops on June 21 alone. Further claims were made that among the Serb casualties were JNA troops from Serbia proper, whose presence would have constituted a violation of the local ceasefire agreement.

Over the course of June 26 and 27, almost a week after the battle, Serb Krajina authorities sent civilians from Knin, with escort from French UNPROFOR troops, to retrieve the remains of Serb dead. They brought back at least 20 bodies with them.

Serb sources claim 40 Serb combat fatalities, several wounded and at least 17 taken prisoner. Even this lower figure would amount to some 15% of the total Serb personnel involved in the battle having been killed in action - a devastating outcome for any armed force.

The Serb village of Nos Kalik was completely destroyed, with one civilian killed, during earlier fighting in May, when Croatian forces stormed the village before withdrawing. A further eight local civilians were imprisoned on Prvić and later on Obonjan, islands near Šibenik, before being released.[1]

Serb artillery piece and truck captured in Širitovci. With the only road out of the area cut off by flanking Croatian attack, the defeated Serb units were forced to abandon their heavy equipment and withdraw overland, on foot.

Video footage of a Serb being beaten by Croatian troops subsequently surfaced in Šibenik. The footage does not show the final fate of the captive, but his remains were subsequently found among those unearthed by an UNPROFOR investigation team.[2] Possibly in response to international disapproval of the Miljevci action, the commanders of the units identified in the video were reprimanded and demoted by Croatian Supreme Command. In addition, Serb sources alleged that several of their prisoners were put on mock trial by their captors and strangled with soldiers' belts or shot.


Two months after the fighting, in August 1992 the UNPROFOR oversaw an exhumation of the bodies of numerous Serbian casualties.[3] [4] The remains were located in a pit, some 10 meters deep, outside of the village of Drinovci, buried together with a pile of garbage. It took a team of speleologists and an army crane to excavate them. They were all decomposed to the point where persons could not be identified. The coroner on site described twenty body bags, mostly containing human remains, army uniforms and numerous missing body parts.

These remains were then transferred to the Serb authorities and re-examined together with all other Serbian fatalities from the battle.[5] The medical examiner in Knin reported that between July 7th and August 19th they had received a total of eighteen bodies on four occasions, also through UNPROFOR. After that they received three more bodies on September 1st.

A total of 40 individual bodies of Serb militiamen were assembled from the remains, which then underwent an identification process. Fourteen were recognized by relatives, two based on medical conditions, and three based on fingerprints. 28 bodies were buried in individual graves, and 12 were put to rest in a common grave at the Knin cemetery. According to Croatian sources, the bodies were those of soldiers who were killed in combat. Apparently, a Croatian commander issued orders for them to be buried at the local Orthodox cemetery with each grave marked, but this was not done by his subordinates.[6]

UN General Secretary, Boutros Boutros Ghali informed the members of the UN Security Council about this event:

"On June 21, the Croatian army attacked positions of the Serbian Territorial Defense on the Miljevci Plateau near Drniš in the pink zone, south of the sector South and advanced several kilometers. The advance of the Croatian army was planned under the command of two brigades, and was the second in the same month. Both represent the breaking of the Sarajevo agreement of June 2, 1992. In response to this, both UNPROFOR and the EC Observation Mission filed a protest asking the Croatian army to withdraw to the previous lines."

The UN Security Council issued Resolution 762, but the Croatian army did not withdraw.


External links

Coordinates: 43°52′50″N 16°2′10″E / 43.88056°N 16.03611°E / 43.88056; 16.03611

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