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Battle of Vrbanja bridge
Part of the Bosnian War
Vrbanja bridge span view.jpg
Vrbanja bridge in 2011
Date27 May 1995
LocationVrbanja bridge, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Result French Army United Nations peacekeepers retake observation post
VRS withdraw
Belligerents
Republika Srpska Army of the Republika Srpska United Nations UNPROFOR
France French Army
Commanders and leaders
Unknown Erik Sandahl
Francois Lecointre
Strength
14 men
1 stolen French armoured personnel carrier
100 men
6 armoured cars
several armoured personnel carriers
Casualties and losses
4 killed
3 wounded
4 captured
2 killed
10 wounded
10 taken hostage


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 Army of the Republika Srpska (VRS), after the VRS took over 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. The VRS took the French peacekeepers hostage. A platoon of 30 French peacekeepers subsequently re-captured the bridge supported by another 70 French infantry and direct fire from armoured vehicles. 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 assault and 10 were wounded. 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.

Background

In March 1995, while NATO was planning a new strategy to support peacekeeping operations in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a ceasefire brokered by former US President Jimmy Carter between the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina (ARBiH) and the Army of Republika Srpska (VRS) forces expired and, as predicted, fighting resumed. As the struggle gradually widened, the ARBiH launched a large-scale offensive in the area of Sarajevo. In response to this attack, the VRS seized heavy weapons from a UN-guarded depot, and began shelling targets around Sarajevo.[1] In retaliation for these actions, the UN commander, Lieutenant General Rupert Smith requested NATO air strikes. NATO responded on 25 and 26 May 1995 by bombing a VRS ammunition dump at Pale.[2] The mission was carried out by USAF F-16s and Spanish Air Force EF-18As Hornets armed with laser-guided bombs.[3] The Serbs 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.[4]

French VAB UNPROFOR armoured personnel carriers during the Siege of Sarajevo

Facing a second hostage crisis, General Smith and other top UN commanders began to shift strategy. The UN began to redeploy 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. General Rose, on the other hand, established the UN Rapid Reaction Force, 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.[5]

Vrbanja bridge was in no-man's-land, surrounded by tall buildings which made the location a target of sniper-fire from the beginning of the war.[6] On 5 April 1992, six protestors including Suada Dilberović and Olga Sučić were shot on the bridge by Serb snipers, and are considered by Croats and Bosniaks to be the first victims at the beginning of the Siege of Sarajevo.[7]

Battle

VRS attack

On 27 May 1995 at 4:30 am,[6] 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 stolen from UN troops detained outside the city. The Serbs disarmed the 12 peacekeepers on the bridge at gunpoint. Ten were taken to an unknown destination while two remained on the site as human shields.[8][9] 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."[6]

French reaction

The first evidence that something was wrong at Vrbanja bridge was radio silence from the French post. Captain Francois Lecointre was sent 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.[6]

The battle-damaged Sarajevo suburb of Grbavica near the Vrbanja bridge over the Miljacka river

The French responded by sending a platoon of 30 FREBAT4 troops to re-capture the northern end of the bridge, backed by another 70 French infantry, six ERC 90 Sagaie armored 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. The French overran a sangar held by the VRS, at the cost of the life of Private Jacki Humblot. The assault was supported by 90mm direct fire from the armoured cars and heavy machine-gun fire. The Serbs responded with mortar bombs and fire from anti-aircraft weapons. Five French were wounded in the clash, while four VRS soldiers were killed and four were taken prisoner.[6] 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.[8] The VRS then asked for a truce to recover their dead and wounded, under the threat of killing 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 last 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 on a supporting mission in the Jewish cemetery of Sarajevo. The VRS soldiers captured in the action were treated as prisoners of war and detained at an UNPROFOR facility.[6][9]

Aftermath

According to the top French officers involving in the operation, the action on Vrbanja bridge showed the VRS that UNPROFOR's attitude had changed. Lieutenant Colonel Erik Roussel stated later that "since the incident, the Serbs are strangely quiet towards us."[6] A memorial to the French soldiers killed in action was unveiled on 5 April 1996, along with a plaque commemorating Suada Dilberović and Olga Sučić.[10] That day, the bridge was renamed in memory of Dilberović and Sučić.[7]

See also

Notes

  1. Beale, Michael (1997). Bombs over Bosnia: The Role of Airpower in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Maxwell Air Force Base, Montgomery: Air University Press. p. 33. OCLC 39892597. 
  2. Operation Deny Flight AFSOUTH Fact sheets
  3. Ripley, Tim (2001). Conflict in the Balkans, 1991-2000. London: Osprey Publishing. p. 23. ISBN 1-84176-290-3. 
  4. Bucknam, Mark (2003). Responsibility of Command. Maxwell Air Force Base: Air University Press. p. 215. ISBN 1-58566-115-5. OCLC 52199670. 
  5. Bucknam, p. 216
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 6.6 The day the Serbs went a bridge too far by Emma Daly. The Independent, 7 June 1995
  7. 7.0 7.1 Schmidt, Bettina (2001) Anthropology of Violence and Conflict. Routledge, p. 221. ISBN 0415229057
  8. 8.0 8.1 "French humiliation sparks battle of Vrbanja". The Independent. 28 May 1995. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/french-humiliation-sparks-battle-of-vrbanja-bridge-1621353.html. Retrieved 31 December 2012. 
  9. 9.0 9.1 Pitched Battles Erupt in Sarajevo : Bosnia: Rebel Serbs kill 3 French soldiers in deadliest clashes yet with peacekeepers. Paris threatens pullout. 220 U.N. troops now held hostage. Moscow dispatches envoys. by Tracy Wilkinson. Los Angeles Times, 28 May 1995
  10. Memorial held for first victim of war in Bosnia by Samir Krilic. Associated Press, 7 April 1996

Coordinates: 43°51′11.92″N 18°24′23.86″E / 43.8533111°N 18.4066278°E / 43.8533111; 18.4066278

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