Why Posavina fell
by Feral Tribune interviews General Stipetic
Extract from an interview with General Petar Stipetić, former chief of staff of the Croatian army, published in Feral Tribune (Split), 24 February 2006. General Stipetić, one of the foremost operational officers in the JNA and subsequently in the Croatian army, was retired in 2005 after forty-six years of active service. He was one of two thousand Croatian officers who in 1991 left the JNA and set about building a new army for independent Croatia. It was General Stipetić who negotiated the terms of surrender and withdrawal of the army of ‘Republika Srpska Krajina’ at the conclusion of Operation Storm (Oluja), thus marking the formal end of the war in Croatia.
Feral Tribune: There are those who continue to blame you for the fall of Posavina [the Sava valley] to the Serbs.
Stipetić: They don’t know what was happening in Posavina at the time. General Tus and I were the only ones who in the second half of 1992 pressed for the corridor towards Banja Luka to be cut. We were unaware then that a political deal had been reached between [Mate] Boban and [Radovan] Karadžić in Graz, leaving the corridor to the Serbs. President Tuđman never told us himself that we should not aim to cut the corridor, so that as commander of the Slavonian theatre of war, which included the Bosnian side of the Sava valley, I planned an operation to seize it. From the military point of view this was the most logical move. In December 1992, however, when the right conditions for cutting the corridor were in place, I was dismissed from my post and returned to Zagreb. In the middle of 1994 I was dismissed again, this time from the post of commanding officer of the Zagreb military district. This happened because at the time the officers who were to conduct the final operations were being selected. I was consequently excluded from operations Bljesak (Flash) and Oluja, though on both occasions I was re-engaged in order to save some critical situations and ensure proper execution of the plans.
Who then was responsible for the fall of Posavina?
As commander of the Slavonian theatre I was in command also of the Posavina HVO, which consisted of eight brigades. The HVO was poorly organised, thanks mainly to the interference of politicians in military issues. Our army was not responsible for the fall of Bosanski Brod - that was due to treachery. The decision to withdraw the HVO units from Bosanski Brod was made by politicians. I never learned whether this was done as a result of the Boban-Karadžić agreement or some other. At the briefing on the evening before, everyone assured me that our lines were secure and that everything was in order. But when I arrived in Slavonski Brod on the following morning I was told that the whole army had been withdrawn from Bosanski Brod. One river brigade was left encircled, which under my instructions managed to force the river and pull out without losses.
Did you establish what had happened and who had ordered the retreat?
I asked, but never got a reply.
Did you ask Tuđman?
I was asked to appear before the UNS [state security coordination] to account for the fall of Posavina. I told them that in my view it was due to treason, that I was not sure whether the treason was committed at the local level or higher up. I added that I felt in no way responsible. The president then asked me: ‘Who destroyed the bridge [across the Sava]?’ I told him I did not know; I had fully secured the bridge. [Government ministers] Manolić and Jarnjak then said that they knew who had done it. I was consequently absolved of all responsibility.
Who had destroyed the bridge?
It was done by an HV engineer unit, but I never learnt on whose orders. But the fact that no one was charged with responsibility for what happened in Posavina must speak for itself.
You were not among the generals who were sent by Tuđman and [Gojko] Š ušak to Herzegovina to command the HVO. Why?
People who went there were specially chosen. They were promised higher ranks, apartments, or tens of thousands of Deutschmarks. I was never offered to go to Herzegovina. I did not approve of the Croatian military engagement in Bosnia and in particular the conflict with the Bosniaks. No one wise would seek to fight a war on two fronts, for one is bound to lose. In 1992 there was a meeting of the military command called by President Tuđman, who wished to know what we thought about Bosnia-Herzegovina. General [Martin] Š pegelj was the first to insist that it was necessary to preserve Bosnia’s territorial integrity, because this was necessary to Croatia’s defence. I seconded this view. The meeting was then suspended and we were never again invited to such sessions. It would seem we were expected to advocate annexation of part of Bosnia-Herzegovina to Croatia.
Do you agree with General [Anton] Tus that Ante Gotovina is a third-rate general?
I would not put it quite like that. In my view he is a soldier competent for certain duties at lower levels: he had superb training in this regard. [Gotovina was a low-ranking officer in the French Legion.] He learnt something during this last war, but that would have to be reinforced with further military education for him to be eligible for the rank of general.
Do you think it right that Croatian generals found guilty of war-crime charges should continue to enjoy the rank of general?
The rank of general and conviction for war crimes absolutely exclude each other. Wearing the rank of a general, whether in service or in retirement, assumes among other things also personal honour. The Croatian armed forces do not have a worked-out procedure for stripping someone who has been found guilty of war crimes of his rank as a general. But it is never too late to do this.