September, 1993–February, 1994
The Muslim offensive in central Bosnia continued through the fall of 1993 into the winter of 1994. The increasingly desperate HVO defenders barely managed to stave off each successive ABiH assault. The February 23, 1994, cease-fire associated with the Washington agreements and the end of open warfare between Muslims and Croats in central Bosnia came just in time: the HVO defenders were exhausted, and a final Muslim triumph was perhaps only weeks or even days away.
In September, 1993, Muslim forces made yet another strong attempt to cut the main road through the Lasva Valley. The attack began on September 5 with an assault on the village of Zabilje from the direction of Brdo. The ABiH forces succeeded in entering the village, and the HVO subsequently reported that two HVO soldiers had been killed and nine wounded, and that fifteen to twenty civilians working in the fields had been taken prisoner. The British UNPROFOR battalion at Stari Bila reported a significant rise in the intensity of local exchanges of artillery, mortar, rocket-propelled grenade, heavy machine gun, and small-arms fire beginning at 8:30 A.M. in the vicinity of Brdo. The firing soon extended to Bukve, to Jardol in the afternoon, and on toward the main road north of Vitez. According to the UNPROFOR: “The immediate BIH objective in this area is to capture Zabilje; this will then ultimately allow their forces to push further south in order to cut the HVO MSR … it is a BIH long term aim to divide the Novi Travnik/ Vitez/Busovaca Croat enclave into a number of smaller isolated pockets.”1
The attack on Zabilje was mounted by elements of the ABiH 325th Mountain Brigade. Mensud Kelestura, the brigade commander, subsequently claimed he had twenty-two HVO bodies to exchange and stated that he would attack Stari Bila within ten days. The situation quieted down on September 6, but heavy firing on the ABiH positions on Bila Hill resumed around 1 P.M. on the seventh and continued into the night. On September 8, the HVO launched its own attack in the Stari Bila area. Elements of the Viteska Brigade, supported by the Vitezovi PPN, attacked Muslim positions in Grbavica in order to forestall the promised ABiH attack and prevent Muslim forces from advancing any farther toward the SPS explosives factory. By first seizing the high ground to either side of the village, including Grbavica (Bila) Hill, which dominated the area, the HVO forces