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 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 north of Vukovar, was a failed attempt to replace a Yugoslav flag in the village with a Croatian one. The unauthorised effort by four Croatian policemen resulted in the capture of two by a Croatian Serb militia in the village. To retrieve the captives, Croatian authorities deployed additional police, who drove into an ambush. At least twelve Croatian policemen and an unknown number of Serbs were killed in the battle before the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) intervened and stopped the fighting.
The confrontation 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 the bodies of some of the dead Croat policemen killed in the incident were reportedly mutilated. The clash in Borovo Selo eliminated any hopes that the escalating conflict could be defused politically and made the war almost inevitable. The Presidency of Yugoslavia met days after the fighting and authorised the JNA to deploy to the area to prevent further conflict but despite this deployment, skirmishes persisted in the region.
In 1990, following the electoral defeat of the government of the Socialist Republic of Croatia, ethnic tensions in Croatia worsened. The Yugoslav People's Army (Jugoslovenska Narodna Armija – JNA) confiscated Croatia's Territorial Defence (Teritorijalna obrana – TO) weapons to minimise 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. In July 1990, they established a Serbian National Council 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, resulting 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. In an effort to bolster its defence, it doubled the number of police personnel to about 20,000. The most effective part of the police force was the 3,000-strong special police, which was deployed in twelve battalions adopting military organization. In addition, there were 9,000–10,000 regionally organised reserve police organised 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 consisting of 47.2% Croats and 32.2% Serbs, smaller settlements in the area were more homogenous. Fourteen 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 that Croatian police would not enter Borovo Selo without explicit consent from local Serb authorities to do so was made. A political rally was held in Borovo Selo on 14 April, and by the end of the month the situation had become more volatile. Speakers at the rally — leader of the Serbian Radical Party Vojislav Šešelj, Serbian National Assembly member Milan Paroški and Serbian Minister of Diaspora Stanko Cvijan spoke in favour of the creation of a Greater Serbia. They all repeated their speeches, together with an open call for dissenting Croats to be killed, a week later in Jagodnjak, north of Osijek. In addition, White Eagles paramilitaries arrived in 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 April 1991, the White Eagles in Borovo Selo were joined by Dušan Silni paramilitaries, who were 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 rockets hit a house and another landed in a field, failing to explode. There were no casualties, but the already tense situation was made worse when 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, who was later murdered by Croat irregulars. Šušak later claimed he had nothing to do with the incident but had been in the area at the time. Croatia's interior minister Josip Boljkovac said the group included Šušak, Branimir Glavaš and Vice Vukojević.
During the evening of 1 May 1991, four Croatian policemen entered Borovo Selo in an unauthorised attempt to replace a Yugoslav flag 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 other two fled after sustaining minor injuries—one a wounded foot and the other 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 the Osijek police administration, Vinkovci police administration—which was assigned authority over the Vukovar municipality—asked Vukovar police station to contact Šoškoćanin about the incident. Vukovar police contacted him at 4:30 a.m., but Šoškoćanin reportedly said he knew nothing. At 9:00 a.m., Vinkovci police chief Josip Džaja telephoned Šoškoćanin and received the same answer. When Reihl-Kir contacted Šoškoćanin half an hour later, the latter confirmed the incident and said the police had shot at members of the local population, wounding one. Reihl-Kir failed to secure the 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 between 20 and 30 policemen entered Borovo Selo under white flag, the local milita and the paramilitaries ambushed them. Approximately 150 police arrived from Osijek and Vinkovci on buses and were deployed as reinforcements. The force dispatched from Vinkovci entered Borovo Selo and was ambushed, while the reinforcements sent from Osijek via Dalj were stopped at a roadblock north of Borovo Selo and failed to enter the village. A firefight ensued and lasted until 2:30 p.m., 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 who refused to let them through.
At least a dozen Croatian policemen were killed and 21 injured in the ambush. The two captured policemen were ferried across the Danube and transported to Novi Sad, but were released and returned to Osijek by the evening of 2 May. Several Serbs in Borovo Selo were also killed in the fighting, but the exact figure was never officially released. Sources disagree on the number of Serb casualties. The figure ranges from three dead, to 17 militiamen and 20 civilians killed. Šešelj said only one civilian died in Borovo Selo, while a 22-strong defending force he led in the battle killed 100 policemen. Residents of Borovo Selo interviewed by reporters said 13 policemen were killed after they took women and children hostage and that the residents defeated the police unassisted, freeing the hostages and sustaining one fatality.
Some of the police killed at Borovo Selo were found to have been mutilated; their ears were cut, their eyes gouged out and their throats slit. 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 said he hoped 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 at the time as cowardice bordering treason, 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 Yugoslav Navy Fleet Admiral Branko Mamula later acknowledged. The incident shocked the Croatian public causing a massive shift in public opinion towards demonization of Serbs, supported by the media. They were collectively labelled "Chetniks", "terrorists" and "enemies of Croatia". Similarly, Serbs referred to the Croats as "Ustaše" and "enemies of the Serb people". 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 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. 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 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, but this was also vandalised soon after completion. A new plaque bearing the names of the 12 Croatian policemen killed in the incident was added to the monument in 2012, but was soon vandalised. 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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