Battle of Vrbanja Bridge
|Battle of Vrbanja Bridge|
|Part of the Bosnian War|
French VAB UNPROFOR armoured personnel carriers during the Siege of Sarajevo
|Commanders and leaders|
1 × captured French armoured personnel carrier
6 × ERC 90 Sagaie armoured cars
several VAB armoured personnel carriers
|Casualties and losses|
4 killed, 3 wounded|
and 4 captured (later released)
3 killed, 10 wounded|
and 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 occurred 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.
Vrbanja Bridge was located in no-man's-land during the Siege of Sarajevo (1992–96). 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 the first victims of the siege by Bosniaks and Croats.
In March 1995, while NATO was planning a new strategy in support of 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 (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 UN commander in Bosnia, 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. In response, the VRS 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.
Facing a second hostage crisis, General 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. General Michael Rose 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.
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 peacekeepers on the bridge at gunpoint. Ten were taken to an unknown destination while two remained on the site 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 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.
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. The French marines overran a sangar 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. Five French were wounded in the clash, while four VRS soldiers were killed 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 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 supporting the assault from Sarajevo's Jewish cemetery. One of the wounded French soldiers died of wounds later that day. The VRS soldiers captured in the action were treated as prisoners of war and detained at an UNPROFOR facility.
According to the top French officers involved in the operation, 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." 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.
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