Battle of Borovo Selo
|Battle of Borovo Selo|
|Part of the Croatian War of Independence|
| SAO Krajina
|Commanders and leaders|
| Vukašin Šoškoćanin
|| Josip Džaja
|unknown||c. 180 policemen|
|Casualties and losses|
The Battle of Borovo Selo on 2 May 1991 (known in Croatia as the Borovo Selo massacre, Croatian: Pokolj u Borovom Selu and in Serbia as the Borovo Selo incident, Serbian: Инцидент у Боровом Селу) was one of the first armed clashes in the conflict which ultimately became known as the Croatian War of Independence. The clash was precipitated by months of rising ethnic tensions and armed combat in Pakrac and at the Plitvice Lakes in March. The immediate cause for the confrontation in the village of Borovo Selo, just to the north of Vukovar, was a failed attempt to replace a Yugoslav flag, hoisted in the village, with a Croatian one. The unauthorised effort by four Croatian policemen resulted in the capture of two of them by a Croatian Serb militia in the village. In an effort to retrieve the captives, Croatian authorities deployed additional police who drove into an ambush. At least twelve Croatian policemen and three Serb militiamen were killed in battle before the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) intervened and stopped the fighting.
The fighting resulted in a further deterioration of the overall situation in Croatia, leading Croats and Serbs to accuse each other of overt aggression and of being enemies of their nation. For Croatia, the event was provocative because some of the police killed in the incident were subsequently mutilated. In consequence, the clash in Borovo Selo eliminated any hopes that the escalating conflict could be defused politically and virtually made the war inevitable. The Presidency of Yugoslavia met days after the fighting and authorised the JNA to deploy to the area and prevent further conflict, but skirmishes quickly spread in the region regardless of their intervention.
In 1990, following the electoral defeat of the government of the Socialist Republic of Croatia, ethnic tensions in the republic worsened. The Yugoslav People's Army (Jugoslovenska Narodna Armija – JNA) confiscated Croatia's Territorial Defence (Teritorijalna obrana – TO) weapons to miminize the possibility of resistance following the elections. On 17 August, the tensions escalated into an open revolt of the Croatian Serbs, centred on the predominantly Serb-populated areas of the Dalmatian hinterland around Knin, parts of the Lika, Kordun, Banovina and eastern Croatia. They established a Serbian National Council in July 1990 to coordinate opposition to Croatian President Franjo Tuđman's policy of pursuing independence for Croatia. Milan Babić, a dentist from the southern town of Knin, was elected president. Knin's police chief, Milan Martić, established paramilitary militias. The two men eventually became the political and military leaders of the SAO Krajina, a self-declared state incorporating the Serb-inhabited areas of Croatia. In March 1991, the SAO Krajina authorities backed by the Serbian government started to consolidate control over Serb-populated areas of Croatia. The move resulted in a bloodless skirmish in Pakrac and the first fatalities in the Plitvice Lakes incident.
In the beginning of 1991, Croatia had no regular army and in an effort to bolster its defence, it doubled the number of police personnel to about 20,000. The most effective part of the force was the 3,000-strong special police deployed in twelve battalions adopting military organisation. In addition there were 9,000–10,000 regionally organised reserve police. The reserve police was set up in 16 battalions and 10 companies, but they lacked weapons.
In 1991, the village of Borovo Selo, situated on the right bank of the Danube opposite Serbia, was a part of the Vukovar municipality. While the city of Vukovar itself had an ethnically mixed population of 47.2% Croats and 32.2% Serbs, smaller settlements in the area were more homogenous—14 were predominantly populated by Croats, ten, including Borovo Selo, by Serbs, two by Ruthenians and the remaining two were ethnically mixed.
Amid the worsening ethnic tensions, Borovo Selo was barricaded on 1 April, one day after the Plitvice Lakes clash. Two days later, the JNA garrison in Vukovar increased its combat readiness to the maximum level. In early spring, an agreement was made that Croatian police would not enter Borovo Selo without explicit consent from local Serb authorities to do so. The situation became more volatile by the end of the month, following a political rally in Borovo Selo on 14 April. Speakers at the rally—Vojislav Šešelj, leader of the Serbian Radical Party, Serbian National Assembly member Milan Paroški and Stanko Cvijan, Serbian Minister of Diaspora—spoke in favour of the creation of Greater Serbia. The same speeches were repeated by the trio a week later in Jagodnjak, north of Osijek, complete with an open call for dissenting Croats to be killed. In addition, White Eagles paramilitaries arrived to Borovo Selo in mid-April, at the request of Borovo Selo militia commander Vukašin Šoškoćanin. The paramilitaries were armed by the Serbian police directly, or the SAO Krajina-aligned local militia under approval of the Serbian officials. By the end of the month, the White Eagles in Borovo Selo were joined by Dušan Silni paramilitaries, linked to the Serbian National Renewal party.
Aiming to inflame the situation, three Armbrust rockets were fired from Croatian positions outside Borovo Selo into the village in mid-April. One of the missiles hit a house and another landed in a field, failing to explode. Nobody was killed or injured, but the already tense situation was made worse as the unexploded rocket was shown on Serbian Television as evidence of Croatian aggression against Serbs. The rockets were fired by a group of men including Gojko Šušak, a high-ranking official of Croatia's ruling Croatian Democratic Union at the time. They were led to the site by Osijek police chief Josip Reihl-Kir, even though Reihl-Kir initially objected to the idea. Šušak later denied he had anything to do with the incident, but admitted he was in the area at the time. Josip Boljkovac, Croatia's interior minister at the time, claimed the group included Šušak, Branimir Glavaš and Vice Vukojević.
In the evening of 1 May, four Croatian policemen entered Borovo Selo, in an unauthorised attempt to replace a Yugoslav flag, hoisted in the village, with a Croatian one. The attempt resulted in an armed clash. Two of the policemen were wounded and taken prisoner, and the remaining two managed to flee, sustaining minor injuries—one a wounded foot and another a grazing wound to his head. According to the Croatian Ministry of the Interior, the police had been on patrol on the Dalj–Borovo Selo road at the time of the incident. Even though the police officers were assigned to Osijek police administration, Vinkovci police administration, which was assigned authority over the Vukovar municipality, requested Vukovar police station contact Šoškoćanin regarding the incident. Vukovar police contacted him at 4:30 that morning, but Šoškoćanin reportedly said he knew nothing. At 9:00, Vinkovci police chief Josip Džaja telephoned Šoškoćanin only to receive the same answer. Reihl-Kir contacted Šoškoćanin half an hour later, when the latter confirmed the incident saying the police had shot at members of the local population wounding one, but Reihl-Kir failed to secure release of the two captured officers.
Reihl-Kir and Džaja concluded that a party should be sent to Borovo Selo, and Šoškoćanin agreed to grant the police safe passage under a white flag. However, when the force of 20 to 30 policemen entered Borovo Selo under white flag, the local milita and the paramilitaries ambushed them. Approximately 150 police were deployed as reinforcements by buses, arriving from Osijek and Vinkovci. While the reinforcements sent from Osijek via Dalj were stopped at a roadblock north of Borovo Selo and failed to enter the village, the force dispatched from Vinkovci entered Borovo Selo and was ambushed. The ensuing firefight lasted until 14:30, when seven JNA armoured personnel carriers (APCs) moved into the village from Dalj. Another convoy of APCs deployed by the JNA through Borovo Naselje, just south of Borovo Selo, was stopped by a crowd of Croat women, refusing to let them through.
At least 12 Croatian policemen were killed in the ambush, and 21 were injured. The two captured policemen were ferried across the Danube and transported to Novi Sad, but released and returned to Osijek by the evening of 2 May. Several Serbs in Borovo Selo were killed in the fighting, and the figure was never officially released. Sources disagree on Serb casualties—the figure ranges from three dead, to seventeen militiamen and 20 civilians killed. Šešelj claimed only one civilian died in Borovo Selo, while a 22-strong defending force he led in the battle killed a hundred policemen. Residents of Borovo Selo interviewed by reporters claimed 13 policemen were killed after they took women and children hostages and that the residents defeated the police unassisted, freeing the hostages while sustaining one fatality.
Some of the police killed at Borovo Selo were found to have been mutilated, their ears cut, eyes gouged out and throats slit, making the incident provocative in Croatia. The act was meant to inflame ethnic hatred. The clash led Tuđman's advisers to advocate an immediate declaration of independence from Yugoslavia, and retaliation against the JNA which was viewed as pro-Serb. On 3 May, Tuđman said Croatia and Serbia were virtually at war, but refrained from retaliation, hoping the international community would stop the violence. The outcome of the fighting reinforced the cautious approach of the Croatian leadership towards long-term decisions. According to Croatian historian Davor Marijan, Tuđman's decision not to retaliate against the JNA was often interpreted as cowardice bordering treason at the time, leading to public criticism and the resignation of General Martin Špegelj from the post of defence minister. Nonetheless, the decision afforded Croatia much needed time to prepare for war, as acknowledged by Yugoslav Navy Fleet Admiral Branko Mamula. The incident shocked the Croatian public causing a massive shift in public opinion, supported by the media, towards demonisation of Serbs. They were collectively labelled "Chetniks", "terrorists" and "enemies" of Croatia. Similarly, Serbs referred to the Croats as "Ustaše" and "enemies" of the Serb people. In turn, chances for a political settlement to avoid an all-out war were greatly reduced. After the clash, a war appeared to be unavoidable.
On 8–9 May, the Presidency of Yugoslavia met to discuss the events in Borovo Selo and a JNA request for a military intervention. Presidents of all Yugoslav constituent republics were also present at the meeting where the Croatian leadership accepted the decision to deploy the JNA in crisis areas of Croatia. On 9 May, representatives of the federal and Croatian governments visited Vukovar. The federal representatives also visited Borovo Selo, unlike the Croatian government officials who stated that they "refused to talk to terrorists". In response to the Borovo Selo clash, the JNA redeployed a part of the 12th Proletarian Mechanised Brigade from Osijek and the 1st Mechanised Battalion of the 453rd Mechanised Brigade based in Sremska Mitrovica to the area of Vukovar. At the same time, the 2nd Mechanised Battalion of the 36th Mechanised Brigade was moved from Subotica to Vinkovci. Yet despite the deployment of the JNA in the area, ethnically motivated skirmishes persisted until the Battle of Vukovar in late August.
During the 1996–98 United Nations administration established pursuant to the Erdut Agreement in order to restore the area to Croatian control, three Croatian non-governmental organizations erected a memorial on public property at the entrance to Borovo Selo, but the site was quickly vandalised. A new monument was erected in the centre of the village in 2002. The new monument was also vandalised soon after completion. A new plaque was added to the monument in 2012, the names of the 12 Croatian policemen killed in the incident, but it was soon vandalised as well. Although the vandalism was condemned by local Serb politicians, they complained that the memorial is offensive to the Serb minority and imposes guilt on the entire community because it brands the Serb forces at Borovo Selo in 1991 as "Serb terrorists".
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