Operation Sana

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Operation Sana
Part of the Bosnian War

Objectives of Operation Sana (Red pog.svg) on the map of Bosnia and Herzegovina
Date 13 September – 20 October 1995
Location Western Bosnia and Herzegovina
Result ARBiH victory
Bosnia and Herzegovina Republic of
Bosnia and Herzegovina
 Republika Srpska
Flag of Serbia (1992-2004).svg Serb Volunteer Guard
Flag of Serbia (1992-2004).svg State Security Service of Serbia
Commanders and leaders
Bosnia and Herzegovina Atif Dudaković Republika Srpska Ratko Mladić
Republika Srpska Radivoje Tomanić
Flag of Serbia (1992-2004).svg Željko Ražnatović
15,000 (initially)
25,000 (peak)
8,000 (initially)
24,000 (peak)
Casualties and losses
Unknown Unknown
Civilian casualties: see the Aftermath section

Operation Sana (Bosnian: Operacija Sana) was a military offensive undertaken by the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina (Armija Republike Bosne i Hercegovine – ARBiH) in western Bosnia and Herzegovina during the Bosnian War. It was launched on 13 September 1995 from the area of Bihać, against the Army of Republika Srpska (Vojska Republike Srpske – VRS), advancing towards Bosanski Petrovac, Sanski Most and Bosanska Krupa At the same time the Croatian Army (Hrvatska vojska – HV) and the Croatian Defence Council (Hrvatsko vijeće obrane – HVO) were engaging the VRS in Operation Maestral 2 further to the southeast. After the initial 70-kilometre (43 mi) advance, the VRS reinforcements managed to stop the ARBiH short of Sanski Most and Novi Grad and reverse some of the ARBiH's territorial gains in a counterattack. After a part of the ARBiH 5th Corps came into jeopardy in the town of Ključ, the ARBiH requested the HV to intervene.

The HV and the HVO launched the Operation Southern Move in response removing VRS pressure from Ključ and allowing the 5th Corps, reinforced by the 7th Corps troops to resume its advance and capture Sanski Most on 12 October, by the time a comprehensive ceasefire was to come into effect throughout the country. Combat continued though for another eight days without significant effect to lines of control. Fighting was not resumed and the war ended the following month through negotiaion and acceptance of the Dayton Agreement.

The operation commenced during NATO campaign of airstrikes against VRS codenamed Operation Deliberate Force, targeting VRS air defences, artillery and storage facilities largely in the area of Sarajevo, but also elsewhere in the country. The Operation Sana, together with concurrent HV and HVO offensives against the VRS, created a controversy among military analysts regarding the issue whether the two ground offensives contributed more towards the resolution of the Bosnian War or the NATO airstrikes, and to what extent were the advances of the ARBiH, HVO and HV helped by, or conversely the VRS hampered by the airstrikes.


As the Yugoslav People's Army (Jugoslovenska narodna armija – JNA) withdrew from Croatia following the acceptance and start of implementation of the Vance plan, its 55,000 officers and soldiers born in Bosnia and Herzegovina were transferred to a new Bosnian Serb army, which was later renamed the Army of Republika Srpska (Vojska Republike Srpske – VRS). This reorganisation followed the declaration of the Serbian Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina on 9 January 1992, ahead of the referendum on the independence of Bosnia and Herzegovina that took place between 29 February and 1 March 1992. This declaration would later be cited by the Bosnian Serbs as a pretext for the Bosnian War.[1] Bosnian Serbs began fortifying the capital, Sarajevo, and other areas on 1 March 1992. On the following day, the first fatalities of the war were recorded in Sarajevo and Doboj. In the final days of March, Bosnian Serb forces bombarded Bosanski Brod with artillery, resulting in a cross-border operation by the Croatian Army (Hrvatska vojska – HV) 108th Brigade.[2] On 4 April 1992, JNA artillery began shelling Sarajevo.[3] There were other examples of the JNA directly supported the VRS,[4] such as during the capture of Zvornik in early April 1992, when the JNA provided artillery support from Serbia, firing across the Drina River.[5] At the same time, the JNA attempted to defuse the situation and arrange negotiations elsewhere in the country.[4]

The JNA and the VRS in Bosnia and Herzegovina faced the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina (Armija Republike Bosne i Hercegovine – ARBiH) and the Croatian Defence Council (Hrvatsko vijeće obrane – HVO), reporting to the Bosniak-dominated central government and the Bosnian Croat leadership respectively, as well as the HV, which occasionally supported HVO operations.[2] In late April, the VRS was able to deploy 200,000 troops, hundreds of tanks, armoured personnel carriers (APCs) and artillery pieces. The HVO and the Croatian Defence Forces (Hrvatske obrambene snage – HOS) could field approximately 25,000 soldiers and a handful of heavy weapons, while the ARBiH was largely unprepared with nearly 100,000 troops, small arms for less than a half of their number and virtually no heavy weapons.[6] Arming of the various forces was hampered by a United Nations (UN) arms embargo introduced in September 1991.[7] By mid-May 1992, when those JNA units which had not been transferred to the VRS withdrew from Bosnia and Herzegovina to the newly declared Federal Republic of Yugoslavia,[5] the VRS controlled approximately 60 percent of Bosnia and Herzegovina.[8] The extent of the control was extended to about 70 percent of the country by the end of the year.[9]


By 1995, the ARBiH and the HVO became better-organised militaries employing comparably large numbers of artillery pieces and good defensive fortifications. Consequently, the VRS was not capable of smashing their defences even where its forces employed sound military tactics, for instance in the Battle of Orašje in May and June 1995.[10] Following the recapture of the bulk of the Republic of Serb Krajina (the Croatian Serb-controlled areas of Croatia) in Operation Storm and the lifting of the Siege of Bihać in August 1995, the HV shifted its focus to the western portion of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The shift was motivated by a desire to create a security zone along the Croatian border, establish Croatia as a regional power and gain favours with the West by forcing an end to the Bosnian War. The government of Bosnia and Herzegovina welcomed the move as it contributed to their goal of a complete capture of western Bosnia and the city of Banja Luka, the largest city in the Bosnian Serb-held territory.[11]

In the final days of August 1995, NATO launched Operation Deliberate Force—a series of airstrikes that targeted the VRS. The move came in response to the second Markale massacre of 28 August, which came on the heels of the Srebrenica massacre in July.[12] The airstrikes began on 30 August, initially targeting the VRS's air defences, and striking targets near Sarajevo, before being suspended on 1 September.[13] By then, the campaign's scope was expanded to include artillery and storage facilities around the city.[14] The bombing resumed on 5 September, and its scope extended to VRS air defences near Banja Luka by 9 September as NATO nearly exhausted its list of targets near Sarajevo. On 13 September, the Bosnian Serbs accepted NATO's demand for the establishment of an exclusion zone around Sarajevo and the campaign ceased.[15]

As the NATO bombing generally targeted the VRS around Sarajevo, western Bosnia remained relatively calm following Operation Storm, with the exception of probing attacks launched by the VRS, HVO or ARBiH near Bihać, Drvar and Glamoč. At the time the HV, HVO and ARBiH were planning a joint offensive in the region.[15] The HV and HVO component of the offensive, codenamed Operation Maestral 2, was launched on 8 September with the aim of capturing the towns of Jajce, Šipovo and Drvar,[16] while the ARBiH 7th Corps advanced on the right flank of the HV and the HVO towards Donji Vakuf.[17] All four towns were seized by 14 September, and the 7th Corps began transferring a substantial portion of its troops to the ARBiH 5th Corps in the Bihać area.[18]

Order of battle[edit]

The 15,000-strong 5th Corps, commanded by Divisional General Atif Dudaković, was assigned the primary objectives of the September ARBiH advance and tasked with capturing the towns of Bosanska Krupa, Bosanski Petrovac, Ključ and Sanski Most. Dudaković divided eight brigades earmarked for the offensive into two operational groups (OGs).[16] He led one OG (South), comprising the 501st Mountain, 502nd Mountain, 510th Liberation and 517th Light brigades, augmented by elements of the 5th Military Police Battalion.[19] The second OG (North), consisting of the 503rd Mountain, 505th Mountain, 506th Liberation and 511th Mountain brigades, was commanded by the corps chief of staff, Brigadier Mirsad Selmanović.[20] HV artillery initially provided OG South with fire support.[17]

The VRS had the 2nd Krajina Corps, commanded by Major General Radivoje Tomanić, and the 30th Infantry Division of the 1st Krajina Corps, commanded by Major General Momir Zec, in the area. Tomanić, who set up his headquarters in Drvar, was in overall command of VRS units in western Bosnia. Tomanić and Zec commanded a combined force of approximately 22,000 troops. However, they were forced to distribute the force among positions facing the 7th Corps, the combined HV and HVO force and the 5th Corps—deploying approximately 8,000 troops against the 5th Corps. They were organised in six infantry or light infantry brigades stationed at the Grabež Plateau, and near Bosanska Krupa and Otoka.[16]


Map of battles in western Bosnia in September–October 1995; Operation Sana 95 is depicted in green on the left hand side of the map

First stage[edit]

The ARBiH launched its advance, codenamed Sana 95, from Bihać towards the Sana River on 13 September. The initial advance was undertaken by OG South and spearheaded by the 502nd Mountain Brigade against VRS positions on the Grabež Plateau south of the town. As its defences yielded to the ground assault supported by HV artillery fire, the VRS started to retreat south towards Bosanski Petrovac alongside civilians fleeing the area. The ARBiH pursued the retreating VRS, capturing Kulen Vakuf the next day and Bosanski Petrovac on 15 September. That same day, the ARBiH linked up with the HV, which had captured Drvar and reached the Oštrelj Pass, as part of Operation Maestral 2, approximately 12 kilometres (7.5 miles) southeast of Bosanski Petrovac.[17] The link-up did not go smoothly though, as both approaching armies mistook the other for the VRS, leading to a friendly fire incident.[22]

Even though a flank of the salient created by the ARBiH advance was vulnerable, the VRS could not exploit the opportunity because it had no reserves available in the area at the time. An effort to widen the salient commenced on 15 September, when OG North moved against Bosanska Krupa and Otoka in an assault spearheaded by the 503rd, 505th and 517th brigades. At the same time, OG South regrouped in Bosanski Petrovac in anticipation of reinforcements arriving from the 7th Corps. The regrouping involved the formation of OG Centre using units previously assigned to the two existing OGs—the 502nd, 505th, 506th and 517th brigades. OG South's 501st and 510th brigades continued their advance and captured Ključ on 17 September, covering 70 kilometres (43 miles) since the start of the operation. The same day, OG North captured Bosanska Krupa and Otoka, and the 510th Brigade was added to OG Centre.[17] This marked the completion of the first stage of the Operation Sana.[23]

The newly formed OG Centre began its advance towards Sanski Most against the remnants of the VRS units which had pulled out of Drvar at the end of the HV's Operation Maestral 2—the 1st Drvar and 1st, 2nd and 3rd Drina infantry brigades.[17] OG North moved against Novi Grad as well as towards Sanski Most on the left flank of OG Centre against the 1st Novigrad and 11th Krupa brigades and the former Drvar garrison. OG South, stripped of all its units except the 501st Brigade and the 17th Krajina Mountain Brigade received from the 7th Corps, was tasked with capturing Mrkonjić Grad on the right flank of OG Centre.[24]

When the ARBiH approached Novi Grad and Sanski Most on 18–19 September, it discovered 14,000 additional VRS troops of the Prijedor OG 10 of the 1st Krajina Corps under the command of Colonel Radmilo Zeljaja, supported by 2,000 troops that had arrived from Serbia. The latter included the Serb Volunteer Guard (Srpska dobrovoljačka garda – SDG),[24] led by Željko Ražnatović Arkan,[25] and Serbia's State Security Service Red Berets, while the 2nd Corps troops reassembled in their rear.[24] As the ARBiH approached the two towns, the HV attempted to cross the Una River at several points near Bosanska Dubica, Bosanska Kostajnica and Novi Grad opposite Dvor in Operation Una on 18 September. Even though the attacking force managed to establish several small bridgeheads on the right bank of the river, the operation was called off after two days of fighting due to high casualties brought on by poor planning.[26]

VRS counteroffensive[edit]

On 20–22 September, VRS 5th Kozara and 6th Sanska brigades managed to push OG Centre back by approximately six kilometres (3.7 miles), while parts of OG North had to pull back in some areas, while edging forward elsewhere against strong resistance near Novi Grad and towards Ljubija.[24] On 22 September, Colonel General Ratko Mladić cut his medical treatment in Belgrade short to return to Banja Luka and control the VRS more directly. The meeting of the top commanders of the VRS and Mladić produced a request for a general mobilisation, establishment of corps-level drumhead court-martials and request for the SDG to leave the area—even though they were invited by the Republika Srpska Ministry of the Interior and granted authority by Radovan Karadžić, the president of the Republika Srpska. Finally, a counteroffensive to regain the lost territory was ordered.[27]

The counteroffensive commenced on the night of 23/24 September, when the VRS attacked OG North, fielding its 65th Protection Regiment, 16th Krajina and 43rd motorised brigades as well as SDG troops. Fighting lasted for six days and was personally overseen by Mladić. The VRS pushed the ARBiH back to Bosanska Krupa and Otoka, but the advance had to be stopped as the VRS had to divert forces to Mrkonjić Grad, where OG South had pushed the VRS 17th Ključ Brigade back to within three kilometres (1.9 miles) of Mrkonjić Grad, bringing the brigade into a desperate situation by 1 October. Thus, the 16th Motorised Brigade shifted from Bosanska Krupa to Mrkonjić Grad, under the command of Colonel Milenko Lazić's OG 2 of the 30th Division. OG 2, supported by the SDG, the Red Berets, a Bosnian Serb special police brigade, and at least one battalion of the 1st Armoured Brigade, started to drive OG South, which received only one additional independent battalion from the 7th Corps as reinforcement, back north towards Ključ. In addition, reinforced 5th Kozara and 6th Sanska infantry brigades (organised as the Prijedor OG) moved south from Sanski Most towards Ključ—as the VRS was hoping to destroy OG South between the pincers. The counterattack gained momentum by 3 October, and the VRS arrived within one kilometre (0.62 miles) of Ključ, covering 17 kilometres within three days. The 16th Motorised Brigade was redeployed again, this time to reinforce VRS positions at Mount Ozren near Doboj.[28] The remaining VRS forces, bolstered by the addition of the 2nd Reconnaissance Sabotage Detachment of the 2nd Corps,[29] continued their attacks against Ključ, but made small advances only by 8–9 October as OG South finally received more reinforcements from the 7th Corps,[28] specifically the 707th and 717th brigades.[30] Since Ključ was in jeopardy, the ARBiH requested that the HV and HVO intervene.[31]

Capture of Sanski Most[edit]

Croatia complied with the ARBiH request and launched Operation Southern Move in response to the situation in Ključ. In the offensive, the HV and the HVO fielded 11,000–12,000 troops who captured Mrkonjić Grad from three VRS brigades garrisoning it, thus relieving VRS pressure on Ključ. The HV and the HVO then captured the Bočac Hydroelectric Power Station, the last remaining electrical power source available to the Bosnian Serbs in western Bosnia and Herzegovina. On 11 October, the HV and HVO reached a point on Mount Manjača located 25 kilometres (16 miles) south of Banja Luka.[32]

By 9 October, the ARBiH 5th Corps received approximately 10,000 troops as reinforcements, including the ARBiH Guards Brigade,[33] the 17th Krajina Mountain, 717th Mountain, 708th Light, and 712th Mountain brigades, and the 7th Reconnaissance-Sabotage Battalion.[34] The Guards Brigade was used to reinforce OG Center, which also took the 501st Brigade from OG South, while the latter was now comprising five brigades previously subordinated to the 7th Corps.[33]

That day, the 5th Corps launched a fresh attack towards Sanski Most, employing OGs Centre and South to capture the town. The assault, spearheaded by the 502nd and 510th brigades, penetrated VRS defences manned by the 15th Bihać and 17th Ključ Brigades, forcing Zeljaja to withdraw his troops to the town itself to avoid encirclement. On 10 October, elements of the VRS 43rd Motorised and 11th Dubica brigades launched an unsuccessful attempt to halt the ARBiH advance on the outskirts of Sanski Most.[33] The 502nd Brigade, the Guards Brigade and the 5th Military Police Battalion subsequently seized the town.[35]

Even though a ceasefire was scheduled to come into force throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina on 12 October, OG Centre continued its advance northeast of Sanski Most, only to engage the bulk of the 43rd Motorised Brigade in a weeklong series of clashes which resulted in little changes to the territory held by either side by 20 October, when fighting died down.[33]


Areas captured in September–October 1995
  by HV and HVO, and   by ARBiH

Operation Sana, as well as Operation Maestral 2, were crucial in applying pressure on the VRS in the final weeks of the Bosnian War.[33] A Central Intelligence Agency analysis comparing the effect that Operation Deliberate Force and Operations Sana and Maestral 2 had on the VRS noted that the NATO campaign did not degrade VRS combat capability as much as one might think—because the airstrikes were never primarily directed at field-deployed units, rather they targeted the command and control infrastructure of the Bosnian Serb military. The analysis concludes that, while NATO degraded VRS capabilities, the final offensives by the HV, HVO and the ARBiH did the most damage.[36] It further notes that those offensives, rather than NATO bombardment, were responsible for bringing the Bosnian Serbs to the negotiating table and ending the war.[37] Author Robert C. Owen argues that the HV, HVO and ARBiH would not have advanced as rapidly as they did had NATO not intervened and hampered the VRS defence, denying it long-range communications.[38]

Operation Sana and Operation Southern Move established the 51%–49% distribution of territory controlled by the ARBiH and HVO on one hand and the VRS on the other, as envisaged by plans put forward by the Contact Group. The ARBiH, HVO and HV ultimately consented to maintenance of the ceasefire of 12 October. According to British historian Marko Attila Hoare, their acquiescence was secured following massive diplomatic pressure from the West, and the alleged threat of US airstrikes against the ARBiH if it breached the ceasefire. The Bosnian War ended with the acceptance of the Dayton Agreement by all sides in November 1995.[39]

In September and October, 6,500 Bosniak and Croat civilians living in the area of Banja Luka or Prijedor were expelled from their homes by Bosnian Serb forces. At the same time, approximately 2,000 non-Serb civilians went missing in the area, and were presumed to be detained in labour camps or killed.[40] Changes of control of the territory also allowed access to two mass graves near Sanski Most, believed to contain the bodies of 300 civilians killed in April 1992.[41]

Operation Sana, along with the near-concurrent Operation Maestral 2, created a large number of refugees from the areas previously controlled by the VRS. Bosnian Serb sources document approximately 40,000 refugees in September 1995, encompassing the entire contemporary populations of the towns of Jajce, Šipovo, Mrkonjić Grad and Donji Vakuf fleeing or being evacuated.[42] At the time, the UN spokesman in Sarajevo estimated the number of refugees at 20,000.[43] Fighting in October caused another 30,000–40,000 refugees to flee from Sanski Most and another 10,000 from areas in and around Mrkonjić Grad.[44]


  1. ^ Ramet 2006, p. 382.
  2. ^ a b Ramet 2006, p. 427.
  3. ^ Ramet 2006, p. 428.
  4. ^ a b CIA 2002, p. 136.
  5. ^ a b CIA 2002, p. 137.
  6. ^ CIA 2002, pp. 143–144.
  7. ^ Bellamy 10 October 1992.
  8. ^ Burns 12 May 1992.
  9. ^ Ramet 1995, pp. 407–408.
  10. ^ CIA 2002, p. 299.
  11. ^ CIA 2002, pp. 376–377.
  12. ^ CIA 2002, p. 377.
  13. ^ CIA 2002, p. 378.
  14. ^ Ripley 1999, p. 133.
  15. ^ a b CIA 2002, p. 379.
  16. ^ a b c CIA 2002, p. 380.
  17. ^ a b c d e f CIA 2002, p. 382.
  18. ^ CIA 2002, pp. 381–382.
  19. ^ a b CIA 2002, p. 418, n. 646.
  20. ^ a b CIA 2002, p. 418, n. 647.
  21. ^ CIA 2002, p. 418, n. 650.
  22. ^ CIA 2002, p. 420, n. 696.
  23. ^ CIA 2002, p. 420, n. 699.
  24. ^ a b c d CIA 2002, p. 383.
  25. ^ CIA 2002, p. 420, n. 703.
  26. ^ CIA 2002, pp. 383–384.
  27. ^ Milutinović 28 February 1997.
  28. ^ a b CIA 2002, p. 389.
  29. ^ CIA 2002, p. 424, n. 803.
  30. ^ CIA 2002, p. 424, n. 802.
  31. ^ CIA 2002, p. 390.
  32. ^ CIA 2002, pp. 390–391.
  33. ^ a b c d e CIA 2002, p. 391.
  34. ^ CIA 2002, p. 425, n. 811.
  35. ^ CIA 2002, p. 425, n. 814.
  36. ^ CIA 2002, p. 395.
  37. ^ CIA 2002, p. 396.
  38. ^ Owen 2010, p. 219.
  39. ^ Hoare 2010, p. 132.
  40. ^ Spolar 30 October 1995.
  41. ^ The Irish Times 28 October 1995.
  42. ^ Beelman 13 September 1995.
  43. ^ O'Connor 14 September 1995.
  44. ^ Pomfret 12 October 1995.


News reports

Coordinates: 44°46′10″N 16°39′07″E / 44.769457°N 16.651866°E / 44.769457; 16.651866