Battle of Vrbanja Bridge
|Battle of Vrbanja Bridge|
|Part of the Bosnian War|
French VAB UNPROFOR armoured personnel carriers during the Siege of Sarajevo
|Army of Republika Srpska (VRS)|
|Commanders and leaders|
1 captured French armoured personnel carrier
6 ERC 90 Sagaie armoured cars
several VAB armoured personnel carriers
|Casualties and losses|
4 captured (later released)
10 taken hostage (later released)
The Battle of Vrbanja Bridge was an armed confrontation which occurred on 27 May 1995 between United Nations (UN) peacekeepers from the French Army and elements of the Bosnian Serb Army of Republika Srpska (VRS). It began after the VRS seized French-manned United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) observation posts on both ends of the Vrbanja Bridge crossing of the Miljacka river in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina during the Bosnian War. Upon seizing the bridge, the VRS took the French peacekeepers hostage.
A platoon of 30 French peacekeepers led by then Captain François Lecointre subsequently re-captured the bridge with the support of 70 French infantrymen and direct fire from armoured vehicles, in an action which saw the first French Army bayonet charge since the Korean War. During the French assault, elements of the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina (ARBiH) opened fire on the VRS-held observation posts, accidentally wounding one French hostage.
Two French soldiers were killed during the battle, 10 were wounded, and one died of wounds later that day. VRS casualties were four killed, three wounded and four captured. Following the battle, VRS forces were observed to be less likely to engage French UN peacekeepers deployed in the city. In 2017, Lecointre, now a general, was appointed French Chief of the Defence Staff.
Vrbanja Bridge was located in no-man's-land during the Siege of Sarajevo (1992–1996). It was surrounded by tall buildings, which made it a target of sniper-fire from the beginning of the Bosnian War. On 5 April 1992, six protestors were shot on the bridge by Serb snipers. Two women, Suada Dilberović and Olga Sučić, died as a result, and are considered by Bosniaks and Croats as the first victims of the siege.
In March 1995, while the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was planning a new strategy in support of United Nations (UN) peacekeeping operations in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a ceasefire brokered by former United States President Jimmy Carter between the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina (Armija Republike Bosne i Hercegovine; ARBiH) and the Army of Republika Srpska (Vojska Republike Srpske; VRS) expired and fighting resumed. As the struggle gradually widened, the ARBiH launched a large-scale offensive around Sarajevo. In response, the VRS seized heavy weapons from a UN-guarded depot and began shelling targets around the city, prompting the Commander, Bosnia and Herzegovina Command, British Lieutenant General Rupert Smith, to request NATO air strikes against the VRS. NATO responded on 25 and 26 May 1995 by bombing a VRS ammunition dump in the Bosnian Serb capital, Pale. The mission was carried out by United States Air Force F-16s and Spanish Air Force EF-18A Hornets armed with laser-guided bombs. The VRS then seized 377 UNPROFOR hostages and used them as human shields for a variety of potential targets in Bosnia and Herzegovina, forcing NATO to end the air strikes. Of the UN hostages taken by the Bosnian Serbs, 92 were French.
On 27 May 1995 at 4:30 am, VRS soldiers posing as French troops captured the UN observation posts on both ends of the bridge without firing a shot. They wore French uniforms, flak jackets, helmets, and personal weapons and drove a French armoured personnel carrier (APC) – all captured from UN troops detained outside the city. The Serbs disarmed the 12 French peacekeepers on the bridge at gunpoint. Ten were taken away, and two hostages remained at the bridge as human shields. According to Colonel Erik Sandahl, commander of the 4th French Battalion (FREBAT4) which was at that time provided by the 3rd Marine Infantry Regiment, "when the Serbs took our soldiers under their control by threat, by dirty tricks, they began to act as terrorists, you cannot support this. You must react. The moment comes when you have to stop it. Full stop. And we did."
The first evidence the French UN troops received that something was wrong at Vrbanja Bridge was radio silence from the French post. About 05:20 on 27 May, platoon commander Captain François Lecointre had lost radio contact with the posts, and drove to the bridge to find out what was happening; he was met by a Serb sentry in French uniform who attempted to take him prisoner. Lecointre quickly turned around and drove to Skenderija stadium, the headquarters of FREBAT4. When news of the takeover of the bridge reached the newly elected French President, Jacques Chirac, he circumvented the UN chain of command and ordered an assault to retake the bridge from the Bosnian Serbs.
The French responded by sending a platoon of 30 FREBAT4 troops from the 3rd Marine Infantry Regiment to re-capture the northern end of the bridge, backed by another 70 French infantry, six ERC 90 Sagaie armoured cars and several VAB APCs. The assault force was led by Lecointre, who approached the northern edge of the bridge following the usual route of the UN convoys. Fourteen VRS soldiers were in the post at the time of the assault. French marines overran a bunker held by the VRS, at the cost of the life of one Frenchman, Private Jacki Humblot. The action marked the first French bayonet charge since the Korean War. The assault was supported by 90-millimetre (3.5 in) direct fire from the armoured cars, and heavy machine-gun fire. The Serbs responded with mortar bombs and fire from anti-aircraft weapons. Ten French soldiers were wounded in the clash, while four VRS soldiers were killed, several more were wounded, and four were taken prisoner.
ARBiH snipers joined the fight, accidentally shooting and wounding one French hostage. At the conclusion of the 32-minute-long firefight, the VRS remained in control of the southern end of the bridge, while the French occupied the northern end. The VRS then asked for a truce to recover their dead and wounded, under the threat of killing the French hostages. The wounded French soldier was immediately released and evacuated to a UN hospital. The VRS eventually gave up and abandoned the southern end of the bridge. The second French soldier held as hostage, a corporal, managed to escape. The second French soldier to die in the battle, Private Marcel Amaru, was killed by a sniper while supporting the assault from Sarajevo's Jewish cemetery. One of the wounded French soldiers died of wounds later that day, bringing the total of French killed during the battle to three. The VRS soldiers captured in the action were treated as prisoners of war and detained at an UNPROFOR facility.
Facing the ongoing hostage crisis, Smith and other top UN commanders began to shift strategy. The UN began redeploying its forces to more defensible locations, so that they would be harder to attack and so that it would be more difficult to take UN personnel hostage. On 16 June 1995, United Nations Security Council Resolution 998 was passed, establishing a British-French-Dutch UN Rapid Reaction Force (UN RRF) under Smith's direction. Authorised to a strength of 12,500 troops, the UN RRF was a heavily-armed land unit with more aggressive rules of engagement, designed to take offensive action if necessary to prevent hostage-taking and enforce peace agreements. The UN hostages were released two days later, as were the four VRS soldiers.
As the UN RRF deployed in June and July, it became clear that the UN was moving towards a peace enforcement stance rather than a peacekeeping one, with the British sending artillery and an air-mobile brigade including attack helicopters, and the force not painting its vehicles white or wearing blue helmets, as was usual on UN missions. On 1 August, following the fall of the UN safe areas of Srebrenica and Žepa to the VRS, senior British, French and United States officers warned the VRS commander, General Ratko Mladić that any further attacks on UN safe areas would result in NATO and the UN using "disproportionate" and "overwhelming" force.
According to the top French officers involved in the battle, the action on Vrbanja Bridge showed the VRS that UNPROFOR's attitude had changed. Following the battle, VRS forces were observed to be less likely to engage French UN peacekeepers deployed in the city. Lieutenant Colonel Erik Roussel, an officer from FREBAT4 who had participated in the operation, stated later that "since the incident, the Serbs are strangely quiet towards us." Chirac's actions were not backed by all of his government, and the French Chief of the Defence Staff, Admiral Jacques Lanxade, threatened to resign. Lanxade was supported by French Prime Minister Alain Juppé and by Defence Minister Charles Millon, but they were overruled by Chirac.
On 30 August, at the commencement of NATO's Operation Deliberate Force, a combined air and ground campaign against the VRS, the UN RRF fired 600 artillery rounds on VRS artillery positions around Sarajevo, and the UN RRF played an important part in ending the siege and in forcing the Bosnian Serbs to the negotiating table later that year. On 20 December 1995, UNPROFOR was relieved by the NATO Implementation Force, following the successful negotiation of the Dayton Agreement peace accords. A memorial to the French soldiers killed in action was unveiled on 5 April 1996, along with a plaque commemorating Dilberović and Sučić. That day, the bridge was renamed in memory of the two women. In 2017, now General Lecointre, made famous by the bayonet charge at the bridge, was appointed as the French Chief of the Defence Staff.
Other incidents involving UNPROFOR clashes with the VRS:
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