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Battle of Borovo Selo

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Battle of Borovo Selo
Part of the Croatian War of Independence
Date 2 May 1991
Location Borovo Selo, Croatia
Result SAO Krajina and White Eagles victory
Belligerents
SAO Krajina  Croatia
Commanders and leaders
SAO Krajina Vukašin Šoškoćanin
White Eagles Vojislav Šešelj
Croatia Josip Džaja
Croatia Josip Reihl-Kir
Units involved
SAO Krajina militia
White Eagles
Dušan Silni detachment
Croatian Police
Strength
unknown c. 180 policemen
Casualties and losses
1 killed
4 wounded
12 killed
21 wounded
2 captured

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, violence, and armed combat in Pakrac and at the Plitvice Lakes in March. The immediate cause for the confrontation in the heavily ethnic Serb 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. Twelve Croatian policemen and one Serb paramilitary 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. After the war, a former Serb irregular was convicted of war crimes for his role in abusing two captured policemen, and ultimately sentenced to three years in prison. Four others were indicted in absentia but remain at large outside Croatia.

Background[edit]

In 1990, following the electoral defeat of the government of the Socialist Republic of Croatia by the Croatian Democratic Union (Hrvatska demokratska zajednica – HDZ), ethnic tensions between Serbs and Croats worsened. The Yugoslav People's Army (Jugoslovenska Narodna Armija – JNA) confiscated the weapons of Croatia's Territorial Defence (Teritorijalna obrana – TO) in order to minimise the possibility of violence following the elections.[1] On 17 August, inter-ethnic tensions escalated into an open revolt of the Croatian Serbs,[2] centred on the predominantly Serb-populated areas of the Dalmatian hinterland around Knin,[3] and parts of Lika, Kordun, Banovina and eastern Croatia.[4]

In July 1990, local Serbs established a Serbian National Council to coordinate opposition to Croatian President Franjo Tuđman's policy of pursuing Croatian independence from Yugoslavia. Milan Babić, a dentist from Knin, was elected president of the council, while Knin's police chief, Milan Martić, established a number of paramilitary militias. The two men eventually became the political and military leaders of the Serb Autonomous Oblast of Krajina (SAO Krajina), a self-declared state incorporating the Serb-inhabited areas of Croatia.[5] In March 1991, SAO Krajina authorities, backed by the government of Serbia, began consolidating control over the Serb-populated areas of Croatia, resulting in a bloodless skirmish in Pakrac and the first fatalities in the Plitvice Lakes incident.[6]

At 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 military-style battalions. In addition, Croatia had 9,000–10,000 regionally organised reserve police officers organised in 16 battalions and 10 companies, but they lacked weapons.[7]

Prelude[edit]

Map of eastern Slavonia area between Osijek and Vukovar (Modern county lines provided for reference)

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 (47.2 percent Croats and 32.2 percent 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.[8]

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.[9] In early spring, the Croats and Serbs reached an agreement whereby Croatian police would not enter Borovo Selo without explicit consent from local Serb authorities.[10] 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—Serbian Radical Party (Srpska radikalna stranka – SRS) leader Vojislav Šešelj, Serbian National Assembly member Milan Paroški and Serbian Minister of Diaspora Stanko Cvijan—promoted the creation of Greater Serbia, a state which would unite all Serbs within a single country. They all repeated their speeches, together with an open call for dissenting Croats to be killed, a week later in Jagodnjak, north of Osijek.[11]

In addition, White Eagles paramilitaries arrived in Borovo Selo in mid-April at the request of Borovo Selo militia commander Vukašin Šoškoćanin.[12][13] The paramilitaries were armed by the Serbian police directly,[12] or the SAO Krajina-aligned local militia under the approval of Serbian officials.[13] 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.[14]

In mid-April, Armbrust rockets were fired from Croatian positions outside Borovo Selo into the village. According to one version of the event, several rounds were fired at agricultural machinery that served as barricades in the outskirts of Borovo Selo.[15] According to a second version, three rockets were fired on the village with the specific aim of inflaming ethnic tensions.[16] One of the rockets hit a house and another landed in a field, failing to explode.[17] There were no casualties,[18] but the already tense situation was made worse when the unexploded rocket was shown on Serbian Television as evidence of Croatian aggression against Serbs.[17] The rockets were fired by a group of men that were led to the site by Osijek police chief Josip Reihl-Kir, who was later murdered by Croat irregulars.[17] Croatia's interior minister Josip Boljkovac said the group included Deputy Defence Minister Gojko Šušak, Branimir Glavaš and Vice Vukojević.[19] Šušak claimed he had nothing to do with the incident but had been in the area at the time.[12] Nikola Jaman, at the time a commander of the local Police Reserve unit, said that he led the action and denied that Šušak, Glavaš and Vukojević were in the group. Jaman noted that the action was planned together with Reihl-Kir.[20]

Timeline[edit]

Croatian police in Borovo Selo, 2 May 1991

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.[21][17] The attempt resulted in an armed clash.[16] 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 the head).[22] According to the Croatian Ministry of the Interior, the police had been patrolling the Dalj–Borovo Selo road at the time of the incident.[21] Even though the officers were assigned to the Osijek police administration,[23] the Vinkovci police administration—which was assigned authority over the Vukovar municipality—asked the 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.[21]

Reihl-Kir and Džaja concluded that a party should be sent to Borovo Selo,[21] and Šoškoćanin agreed to grant the police safe passage under a white flag.[24] However, when the force of between 20 and 30 policemen[25][21] entered Borovo Selo under the white flag, they were ambushed by paramilitaries and members of a local militia.[24] Approximately 150 police arrived from Osijek and Vinkovci on buses and were deployed as reinforcements.[25] 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.[21]

Aftermath[edit]

Casualties[edit]

Twelve Croatian policemen were killed and 21 injured in the ambush.[6] 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.[26][21] Vojislav Milić, a paramilitary from Valjevo, was the only fatality on the Serb side,[27] while four men were injured.[28] Some of the police killed at Borovo Selo were found to have been mutilated, their ears cut, their eyes gouged out and their throats slit.[24][16] These acts were meant to inflame ethnic hatred.[29]

Escalation to war[edit]

The clash led Tuđman's advisers to advocate an immediate declaration of independence from Yugoslavia and retaliation against the JNA, which Croats viewed as being pro-Serb.[26][6] On 3 May, Tuđman opined that Croatia and Serbia were virtually at war, but said he hoped the international community would stop the violence.[26][6] 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.[30] The incident shocked the Croatian public, causing a massive shift in public opinion towards demonization of Serbs, supported by the Croatian media.[31] Serbs were collectively labelled "Chetniks", "terrorists" and "enemies of Croatia". Similarly, Serbs referred to Croats as "Ustaše" and "enemies of the Serb people". Thus, a political settlement to avoid all-out war became increasingly unlikely.[32] After the clash, war appeared unavoidable.[33]

On 8–9 May, the Presidency of Yugoslavia met to discuss the events in Borovo Selo and a JNA request for 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.[34] On 9 May, representatives of the federal and Croatian governments visited Vukovar.

Federal representatives visited Borovo Selo, unlike the Croatian government officials who stated they "refused to talk to terrorists".[35] 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 Vukovar area. At the same time, the 2nd Mechanised Battalion of the 36th Mechanised Brigade was moved from Subotica to Vinkovci.[36] Despite the deployment of the JNA in the area, ethnically motivated skirmishes persisted until the start of the Battle of Vukovar in late August.[6]

Memorial controversy and prosecution[edit]

The Borovo Selo memorial as it appeared prior to 2012

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,[37] but was also subject to vandalism.[38] Although the vandalism was condemned by local Serb politicians, they complained that the memorial was offensive to the Serb minority and imposed guilt on the entire community because it branded Serb forces at Borovo Selo in 1991 as "Serb terrorists".[39]

In February 2012, an Osijek court convicted Milan Marinković of war crimes and sentenced him to 3 ½ years in prison for mistreating two captured Croatian police officers.[40] In 2014, Marinković's sentence was reduced to three years on appeal.[41] Four other men were indicted in relation to the officers' mistreatment, but all four live outside Croatia, and are not subject to prosecution by the Croatian judiciary.[40]

Footnotes[edit]

References[edit]

Books
Scientific journal articles
News reports
Other sources

Coordinates: 45°22′51.60″N 18°57′27.00″E / 45.3810000°N 18.9575000°E / 45.3810000; 18.9575000