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Miljevci plateau incident

A Croatian infantryman poses in front of a road sign in Širitovci, June 21, 1992.   Croatian War of IndependencePlitvice Lakes – Borovo Selo – Dalmatia – Vukovar (Battle, Massacre) – The Barracks – Dubrovnik – Lovas – Široka Kula – Gospić – Saborsko – Baćin – Otkos 10 – Škabrnja – Orkan 91 – Voćin – Miljevci – Maslenica – Medak Pocket – Flash – Zagreb – Summer '95 – Storm

On June 21, 1992, units of the Croatian army launched a surprise attack on 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 brigade-strength battle 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.


Prelude: The Battle for Dalmatia

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, was nothing short of a mitigated defeat for young Croatia. Ethnic Krajina Serb rebels, openly backed by the Serbian-controlled Yugoslav National Army JNA and driving north, south and west from their seat of power in Knin, pressed home their near-total superiority in artillery, armour and air power over the newly-formed Croatian army, and seized control of large tracts of Croatian territory, amounting to almost a third of the country. In contrast to the events in the northeast, where an intended JNA offensive through Slavonia disastrously ground down into the siege of Vukovar, 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 situation for the Croatian defenders was desperate. They were being beaten back towards the Adriatic coast and the major cities of Zadar, Šibenik and Split, which were all under Yugoslav naval blockade and under daily attack from Serb artillery and aircraft. Zadar and Šibenik were so close to the frontlines that Serb forces were able to shell the cities with mortar fire. The Serb battle plan called for nothing short of turning the three coastal cities into enclaves surrounded by Serb-held territory and a Serb-controlled Adriatic Sea.

The Serbs, for their part, were in a race against time to complete their offensive while their superiority in men and weapons lasted. The Battle of the Barracks, a series of standoffs with JNA garrisons throughout Croatia over the course of August-November 1991, was seeing large quantities of JNA heavy weapons and materiel falling into Croatian hands, black-market arms - some of them financed by the Croatian disapora - were streaming into the country, and Croatian Army ranks were swelling with large numbers of highly-motivated volunteers, a number of them expatriates returned from service in foreign military formations such as the French Foreign Legion.

In late 1991, battlefield initiative began to slip from the Serbs, and Croatian counterattacks switched from checking Serb advances to "bite-and-hold" actions against key hamlets and hilltops. 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 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.

This came to be known as the Battle of Dalmatia.

Tense ceasefire

The ceasefire which brought the Battle of Dalmatia to a halt was deeply resented in Croatia, chiefly because it permitted the Serbs to hold on to all the territory they controlled at the time it came into effect. The several moderate successes the Croatian forces had in recapturing territory (in Baranja in the east, near the Papuk mountain in the north and around Zadar in the south) from the Serbs immediately prior to the ceasefire had created a popular perception in Croatia that the tide of battle had turned against the Serbs and that the ceasefire had protected them from imminent defeat. In reality, the Serbs still held an advantage in numbers and heavy weapons, and the outcome of a continuation of open hostilities was far from a foregone conclusion. This feeling was the strongest at the frontlines, where the Croatian units were, in large part, made up of local men who'd either been forced from their homes by the fighting or come from nearby towns and cities which the Serbs had shelled or attacked from the air. Many had lost loved ones, some in the widely-reported atrocities committed by Serb forces. For these Croatian fighters, the war was very personal, with scores to settle, and they saw the ceasefire as having robbed them of their opportunity for revenge.

More pragmatically, the ceasefire left the Serbs at a marked strategic advantage, especially in the Dalmatian hinterland. 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. Worse, Serb artillery was still in range of Zadar, Šibenik and Split on the coast, and the major hinterland centre of Sinj. The Peruča hydroelectric dam on the Cetina river near Sinj was also in Serb hands, compromising electricity supplies throughout Dalmatia.

The actions of the Serbs did little to help matters. As the ceasfire 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 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

Croatian patience snapped on the Miljevci Plateau, north of Šibenik and east of Drniš in late June 1992. The village of Miljevci, in the center of the plateau, was ethnically Croatian but had been occupied by Serbs in 1991. Local Croatian commanders launched an apparently improptu 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 Motorized Guard Brigade and the Zrinski Battalion 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 and, it was claimed, JNA forces.[citation needed] Lieutenant Tihomir Budanko, who would later ride 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 claimed to have been 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 claimed to have been taken to be imprisoned on Prvić and later on Obonjan, islands near Šibenik, before beong 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 (Chetnik) paramilitary POW 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 a resolution (no. 762), but the Croatian army did not withdraw.


  1. ^ Police report on Serbian prisoners, July 29, 1992, facsimile at the Veritas web site
  2. ^ Article in Nedjeljna Dalmacija about the videotape from the Miljevci Plateau[dead link]
  3. ^ Exhumation report of the Municipal Court of Šibenik, August 18-19, 1992, transcribed in Serbian Cyrillic at the Veritas web site
  4. ^ Exhumation report of the Municipal Court of Šibenik, August 20, 1992, transcribed in Serbian Cyrillic at the Veritas web site
  5. ^ Medical examiner's final report, Knin general hospital, undated, in Serbian Cyrillic, at the Veritas web site
  6. ^ Nedjeljna Dalmacija interview with Croatian soldier and witness[dead link] (Croatian)

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• Battle of Vukovar
• Lipovaca, Vukovići & Saborsko
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• Battle of the Barracks
• Lovas massacre
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