|Siege of Bjelovar Barracks|
|Part of the Battle of the Barracks|
Major barracks of the JNA 32nd Corps, 29 September 1991
Croatian National Guard|
|Yugoslav People's Army|
|Commanders and leaders|
|Želimir Škarec||Rajko Kovačević|
|Casualties and losses|
14 killed, 30 wounded|
|5 civilians killed, 70 Croatian troops and civilians wounded|
The Siege of Bjelovar Barracks, also known under codename Operation Bilogora (Croatian language: Operacija Bilogora ), was the blockade and capture of the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) barracks and other facilities in and around the city of Bjelovar, a part of the JNA 32nd (Varaždin) Corps, during the Croatian War of Independence. A general blockade of the JNA facilities in Croatia was ordered on 14 September 1991, and it continued until 29 September when the JNA garrison was captured by Croatian forces. Its capture occurred one week after the bulk of the 32nd Corps surrendered. It was part of the Battle of the Barracks—an effort by Croatian armed forces to pin down JNA units deployed to barracks in Croatia or capture them in order to provide arms for Croatia's nascent army.
The fighting resulted in the capture of a substantial stock of weapons, as well as considerable damage to the city of Bjelovar and its surroundings due to gunfire and the explosion of an ammunition storage depot on the outskirts of the city. The fighting erupted despite a ceasefire that had been arranged days before, and caused JNA General Veljko Kadijević to withdraw from negotiations regarding the ceasefire's implementation. He subsequently issued an ultimatum to Croatian authorities, warning against the capture of further JNA facilities.
In 1990, ethnic tensions between Serbs and Croats worsened after the electoral defeat of the government of the Socialist Republic of Croatia by the Croatian Democratic Union (Croatian language: Hrvatska demokratska zajednica
– HDZ). The Yugoslav People's Army (Serbian language: Jugoslovenska Narodna Armija – JNA) confiscated Croatia's Territorial Defence (Croatian language: Teritorijalna obrana – TO) weapons to minimize resistance. 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 (approximately 60 kilometres (37 miles) north-east of Split), parts of the Lika, Kordun, Banovina and eastern Croatia. In January 1991, Serbia, supported by Montenegro and Serbia's provinces of Vojvodina and Kosovo, unsuccessfully tried to obtain the Yugoslav Presidency's approval for a JNA operation to disarm Croatian security forces. The request was denied and a bloodless skirmish between Serb insurgents and Croatian special police in March prompted the JNA itself to ask the Federal Presidency to give it wartime authority and declare a state of emergency. Even though the request was backed by Serbia and its allies, the JNA request was refused on 15 March. Serbian President Slobodan Milošević, preferring a campaign to expand Serbia rather than to preserve Yugoslavia with Croatia as a federal unit, publicly threatened to replace the JNA with a Serbian army and declared that he no longer recognized the authority of the federal Presidency. The threat caused the JNA to abandon plans to preserve Yugoslavia in favour of expansion of Serbia as the JNA came under Milošević's control. By the end of March, the conflict had escalated with the first fatalities. In early April, leaders of the Serb revolt in Croatia declared their intention to amalgamate the areas under their control with Serbia. These were viewed by the Government of Croatia as breakaway regions.
At the beginning of 1991, Croatia had no regular army. To bolster its defence, Croatia doubled its police numbers to about 20,000. The most effective part of the Croatian police force was 3,000-strong special police comprising twelve battalions organised along military lines. There were also 9,000–10,000 regionally organised reserve police in 16 battalions and 10 companies, but they lacked weapons. In response to the deteriorating situation, the Croatian government established the Croatian National Guard (Croatian language: Zbor narodne garde
– ZNG) in May by expanding the special police battalions into four all-professional guards brigades. Under Ministry of Defence control and commanded by retired JNA General Martin Špegelj, the four guards brigades comprised approximately 8,000 troops. The reserve police, also expanded to 40,000, was attached to the ZNG and reorganised into 19 brigades and 14 independent battalions. The guards brigades were the only units of the ZNG that were fully equipped with small arms; throughout the ZNG there was a lack of heavier weapons and there was poor command and control structure above the brigade level. The shortage of heavy weapons was so severe that the ZNG resorted to using World War II weapons taken from museums and film studios. At the time, the Croatian weapon stockpile consisted of 30,000 small arms purchased abroad and 15,000 previously owned by the police. To replace the personnel lost to the guards brigades, a new 10,000-strong special police was established.
The views of the Croatian leadership on how to deal with the JNA's role in the Croatian Serb revolt gradually evolved between January and September 1991. Croatian President Franjo Tuđman's initial plan was to win European Community (EC) and United States support, so he dismissed Špegelj's advice to seize JNA barracks and storage facilities in Croatia in late 1990. During the Ten-Day War in June and July 1991, Špegelj once again urged Tuđman to act while the JNA fought Slovenia's TO. Špegelj's calls were echoed by Šime Đodan, who succeeded him as Defence Minister in July. Špegelj remained in command of the ZNG.
Tuđman's initial stance was based on his belief that Croatia could not win a war against the JNA. The ZNG was therefore limited to conducting defensive operations, even though the actions of the JNA appeared to be coordinated with Croatian Serb forces. This impression was reinforced by buffer zones established by the JNA after fighting between Croatian Serb militia and the ZNG. The JNA often intervened after the ZNG had lost territory, leaving the Croatian Serbs in control of areas they had captured before the JNA stepped in. The JNA provided some weapons to the Croatian Serbs, although most of their weaponry was sourced from Serbia's TO and the Serbian Ministry of Internal Affairs.
Špegelj and Đodan's stance received support from a number of Croatian Parliament members in July 1991. In response, Tuđman dismissed Đodan the same month he was appointed Defence Minister, and Špegelj resigned his command of the ZNG on 3 August. The deteriorating situation in eastern Croatia, including the JNA expulsion of ZNG troops from Baranja, intermittent fighting around Osijek, Vukovar and Vinkovci, increasing losses and the growing conviction that the JNA were actively supporting the Croatian Serb revolt, forced Tuđman to act. On 22 August, he issued an ultimatum to the federal Yugoslav authorities demanding the withdrawal of the JNA to its barracks by the end of the month. The ultimatum stated that if the JNA failed to comply, Croatia would consider it an army of occupation and take corresponding action. On 1 September, the EC proposed a ceasefire and a peace conference was accepted by the Yugoslav Presidency and by Tuđman, despite his earlier ultimatum. The conference started on 7 September, but only four days later, the Croatian member and chair of the presidency, Stjepan Mesić, ordered the JNA to return to its barracks within 48 hours. This order was motivated by Tuđman's concern that the conference would drag on while the ZNG lost territory. Even though the order was opposed by other members of the presidency, it gave Croatia justification to openly confront the JNA.
Prime Minister Franjo Gregurić advised Tuđman to implement Špegelj's plan. According to General Anton Tus, Tuđman ordered the ZNG to capture JNA barracks on 12 September, but rescinded the order the next day. The order was reinstated on 14 September after Tus pleaded with Tuđman to re-authorize action, arguing that the ZNG was running out of time. The same day, the ZNG and the Croatian police blockaded and cut utilities to all JNA facilities it had access to, beginning the Battle of the Barracks. This action comprised blockades of 33 large JNA garrisons in Croatia, and numerous smaller facilities, including border posts, and weapons and ammunition storage depots.
Order of battle
Beginning in 1988, the JNA's Bjelovar garrison had been included in the 32nd Corps, headquartered in Varaždin. The 32nd Corps was the second largest JNA corps in Croatia. It commanded the 32nd Mechanised Brigade and the 32nd Mixed Artillery Regiment both based in Varaždin, the 32nd Engineer Regiment in Čakovec, the 411th Mixed Antitank Artillery Regiment based in Križevci, the 73rd Motorised Brigade headquartered in Koprivnica, the 265th Mechanised Brigade based in Bjelovar, and the 288th Mixed Antitank Artillery Brigade in Virovitica. Although the JNA did not have enough troops to secure its facilities, it was possible that the 5th (Banja Luka) Corps units deployed to Okučani might attempt to relieve some of the garrisons. A part of the 265th Mechanised Brigade was deployed to Koprivnica to reinforce the 73rd Motorised Brigade. It consisted of a battalion of tanks and one engineers battalion. Both were relocated to Koprivnica in August 1990 to boost the JNA's presence in the town. A battlegroup comprising 23 armoured and 14 other vehicles, drawn from the 265th Mechanised Brigade and commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Milan Čeleketić, was deployed to Okučani and attached to the 5th Corps on 15 August to prevent Croatian special police from ousting Croatian Serb forces from the town.
In addition to the 265th Mechanised Brigade, Bjelovar hosted the headquarters of the (TO) 28th Partisan Division and one of the division's brigades. The most significant facility of the JNA in Bjelovar and its immediate surroundings was the Božidar Adžija Barracks, situated on the western outskirts of the city. The barracks housed Bjelovar garrison headquarters and the bulk of the weaponry of the 265th Mechanised Brigade, including approximately 500 officers and soldiers. There was a JNA non-combat facility in the centre of Bjelovar, protected by a small security detail, a radar base and an anti-aircraft defence communications hub in the village of Zvijerci and Trojstveni Markovac to the north of Bjelovar, and two storage depots. One of those, the Logor Depot, was used to store tanks and other equipment of the 265th Mechanised Brigade and weapons confiscated from the TO in Bjelovar, and was guarded by approximately 50 officers and soldiers. The second storage, the Barutana Depot, was used to store ammunition. Unlike the Logor Depot which was situated in the city itself, the Barutana Depot was located in the Bedenik Forest near Bjelovar.
Croatia established a company-sized special police unit in Bjelovar on 23 February 1991. Following the deterioration of the situation in western Slavonia, the 105th Brigade of the ZNG was also raised in the city, largely relying on small arms, and plans for a blockade of the routes in and out of the city were developed. A crisis headquarters was set up to coordinate the defence of the city and the manufacture of weapons in industrial plants which modified their production.
Growing tensions and the blockade
The first significant conflict involving the JNA in Bjelovar area occurred on 1 September, when 14 JNA officers and soldiers were disarmed at a Croatian checkpoint. The commanding officer of the JNA Bjelovar garrison, Colonel Rajko Kovačević demanded the weapons to be returned, however the Croatian forces declined the request, claiming that the weapons were already sent to Zagreb. The tensions were greatly increased after 18 ZNG troops of the 105th Brigade, deployed from Bjelovar, went missing during the Battle of Kusonje on 9 September. The civilian authorities in the city demanded the JNA to provide information on their fate, but the JNA declared it had no knowledge on the matter.
After the blockade of the JNA barracks, which were accessible to Croatian authorities, was imposed, the Croatian forces captured all major garrisons of the 32nd Corps, except the ones based in Bjelovar and Koprivnica by 22 September. In turn, the JNA garrisons in the two cities were ordered to extract themselves to the territory under control of the 5th Corps near Okučani. The Koprivnica-based garrison was ordered to break out to Bjelovar, link up with the 265th Mechanised Brigade before they together proceeded towards Daruvar via Grubišno Polje. At the same time, the Bjelovar garrison was blockaded and its utilities and supplies were cut, while negotiations on surrender of the garrison were started involving the civilian crisis headquarters, presided over by Jure Šimić. The negotiations stalled when the JNA demanded that the 265th Mechanised Brigade be allowed to evacuate to Okučani or Bosnia and Herzegovina. At the time, a number of civilians of Serb ethnicity took refuge in the barracks either fearing for their safety or to distance themselves from the Croatian authorities.
Preparations of the attack
Preparations to seize the JNA facilities in Bjelovar took place on 21–29 September. Those involved placing of obstacles around the JNA facilities, setting up of artillery and air defence units, as well as drafting of plans to capture the JNA garrison, codenamed Operation Bilogora. The 105th Brigade deployed its 1st Battalion to the area of villages of Bedenik and Velika Pisanica, the 2nd Battalion in the village of Narta, and the 3rd Battalion north of Bjelovar, encircling the city. In the city itself, nine battlegroups were deployed to attack armoured units which might attempt a breakout. The air defence was set up in nearby villages and provided with two 12.7-millimetre (0.50 in) machine guns and two 20-millimetre (0.79 in) anti-aircraft guns. A battery of T-12 antitank guns was deployed to Hrgovljani area. In an attempt to mitigate an overall shortage of weapons, 200 Molotov cocktails were sent from Zagreb and three armoured personnel carriers armed with 9M14 Malyutka anti-tank guided missile systems were received from Virovitica on 23 September. Even though the crisis headquarters were to coordinate all activities of Croatian armed forces based in Bjelovar and reinforcements received from Varaždin after the JNA garrison based there surrendered, Colonel Želimir Škarec, a member of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Croatia, was appointed as the commanding officer of the military operation.
Despite the 22 September ceasefire agreement between the JNA and Croatia providing for resuming supplies to the JNA barracks, the authorities in Bjelovar refused to restore utilities claiming that the agreement allows for supply of JNA officers and soldiers only, while there were civilians sheltering in the barracks. On 27 September, the General Staff requested that the garrison be captured on 28–30 September. Tus, acting as the Chief of the General Staff, ordered clandestine killing of extremists before they cause mass killing of civilians or great material damage. According to Tus, the order was based on an assessment that there were extremist JNA officers present in Bjelovar, intent on carrying out such acts.
Capture of the garrison
In the morning of 29 September, the ZNG and the police attacked the JNA facilities in Bjelovar. In response, Kovačević contacted the JNA 5th Military District in Zagreb and requested airstrikes against the city and the ZNG. The 5th Military District in turn pressured the central Croatian authorities to order a ceasefire in Bjelovar. In order to verify the ceasefire, the European Community Monitor Mission (ECMM) deployed a monitoring team to the city. However, the authorities ignored the order they received from the General Staff and prevented the ECMM team from reaching Bjelovar. According to Šimić, the move was made after Lieutenant General Petar Stipetić telephoned him and urged him to continue the attack. Authenticity of the call was disputed by Admiral Davor Domazet-Lošo, who claims it was an attempt to discredit Croatia before the ECMM. At 19:00, the ZNG captured Božidar Adžija Barracks. By that time, all other JNA facilities in and near Bjelovar had been captured.
Before Barutana Depot was captured by the ZNG, one of four storage structures, containing 1,700 tonnes (1,700 long tons; 1,900 short tons) of ammunition, was blown up by JNA Major Milan Tepić. The explosion occurred at 10:43, killing eleven ZNG troops who were taking part in blockade of the depot in Bedenik Forest. The blast knocked down trees in a circle 200 metres (660 feet) wide, caused damage to nearby structures and could be heard 20 kilometres (12 miles) away.
The JNA suffered the loss of 14 killed, and 30 wounded. The ZNG lost 17 dead and five civilians were killed. There were 70 wounded ZNG troops and civilians combined. The ZNG captured 60 officers and 365 soldiers. The captured troops were released in a prisoner exchange between Slavonski Šamac and Bosanski Šamac on 14 November. The ZNG also captured 75 T-55 and three PT-76 tanks, nine 122-millimetre (4.8 in) howitzers, four M-63 Plamen multiple rocket launchers, 77 BVP M-80 infantry fighting vehicles, weapons previously confiscated from the Bjelovar TO, weapons of the 1st Brigade of the 28th Partisan Division including 1,300 automatic rifles and machine guns and approximately 100 various trucks. During the fighting, 437 residential structures, 513 apartments, 169 utility structures and 25 public and commercial buildings were damaged or destroyed in Bjelovar and Hrgovljani. The only remaining major unit of the 32nd Corps following 29 September—the 73rd Motorised Brigade based in Koprivnica—surrendered to the ZNG the following day.
The capture of the JNA barracks in Bjelovar also affected the latest ceasefire agreement reached between the JNA and Croatia in Igalo, specifically its provision regarding lifting of the blockade of the JNA barracks. Initially there was a dispute between Tuđman and JNA General Veljko Kadijević whether that meant achieving normal living conditions in the barracks or complete freedom of movement for the JNA in Croatia. A compromise interpretation was negotiated, only to be dropped by Kadijević specifically because of the events in Bjelovar. On 1 October, Kadijević issued an ultimatum to Croatia threatening destruction of a civilian facility vital to Croatian population for each military post captured by the ZNG. The ultimatum demonstrated that the JNA no longer considered Croatia a part of a single country the army was fighting to protect, rather an enemy land.
Tepić was considered a hero in Serbia because he preferred to die rather than surrender. He was posthumously awarded the Order of the People's Hero by the Presidency of Yugoslavia on 19 November 1991. He became the last recipient of the order, and a model of a hero to authorities in Serbia.
In 2010, Šimić was charged with war crimes, specifically killing of prisoners of war. According to the charges filed by the County Court of Bjelovar, Šimić or several persons directly commanded by him, killed Kovačević and two other JNA officers after they surrendered on 29 September. Four other persons were tried on charges of killing of six prisoners of war captured in Božidar Adžija Barracks and taken away to the Česma Forest near the village of Malo Korenovo to be shot along with one civilian who had been held in custody since 2 September. The soldiers were killed, but the civilian prisoner survived, even though he sustained severe injuries. The four were acquitted in 2012. In 2005, authorities in Bjelovar announced they will file war crime charges against two unnamed JNA officers. Škarec and another ZNG officer were charged with disobeying the order issued by the General Staff, and imprisoned.
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- "Na Dan grada i bjelovarskih branitelja prisjetili se 11 poginulih" (in Croatian). Commemoration of 11 Killed on Occasion of the Day of the City and of the Defenders of Bjelovar. 29 September 2013. http://www.vecernji.hr/sredisnja-hrvatska/na-dan-grada-i-bjelovarskih-branitelja-prisjetili-se-11-poginulih-620694.
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- "Suđenje za zločin u bjelovarskoj vojarni; svjedočio preživjeli Kovač" (in Croatian). Bjelovar Barracks Crime Trial: Surviving Kovač Testified. Index.hr. http://www.index.hr/vijesti/clanak/sudjenje-za-zlocin-u-bjelovarskoj-vojarni-svjedocio-prezivjeli-kovac/251471.aspx.
- Sudetic, Chuck (2 April 1991). "Rebel Serbs Complicate Rift on Yugoslav Unity". Archived from the original on 2 October 2013. http://web.archive.org/web/20131002222938/http://www.nytimes.com/1991/04/02/world/rebel-serbs-complicate-rift-on-yugoslav-unity.html.
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