As Operation Barras took shape in the dense jungles of Sierra Leone, an observation team of Britain’s Special Air Service (SAS) was inserted on foot within 250 metres of the rebel camp where British soldiers were being held captive by rebel leader Foday Kallay. Armed with specialized equipment, the team had a ringside view of the camp and the serious condition of the hostages. First-hand observation about the number of rebels, their weapons and morale allowed the British to develop the final assault plans.
Also read | Raghu Raman’s earlier columns
The close proximity of the other rebel camp across the Rokel river meant that the two would have to be neutralized simultaneously. On the 17th day of the crisis, then Prime Minister Tony Blair gave the go-ahead, and six helicopters took off using the most dangerous approach to any rescue mission. An airborne assault has two major disadvantages. First, the noise of the helicopters gives away the element of surprise well before the commandos can slither down into the firefight. Second, helicopters are sitting ducks while they hover to disgorge the commandos.
In 1993, US Special Forces had attempted a similar mission in Mogadishu into the stronghold of Somalian warlord Farrah Aidid. But two of their Black Hawk helicopters had been brought down; the raid had resulted in 18 deaths; and instead of surgical 30-minute operation, troops had been pinned down in enemy territory for 17 hours.
The US raid had heavy armored ground support, which had finally extricated the beleaguered airborne troops. The British were going to attempt their operation without any such backing. If they failed, over 150 soldiers would be slaughtered in the jungles.
At dawn on 26 September 2000, two attack teams in three Chinook helicopters approached Geberi Bana and Magbeni simultaneously. The SAS commandos would attack Kallay’s camp to rescue the hostages, and elements of the Parachute Regiment (Paras) would suppress the rebel group at Magbeni to prevent them from bringing their heavy weapons into play. Three Lynx helicopters accompanied the Chinooks providing close air support.
Fortunately, the rebels at Geberi Bana were nursing a hangover from a binge the previous night. This had been one of the intelligence inputs provided by the SAS observation team. Though the helicopters skimmed the treetops to minimize the noise, the rebels heard the thump of the rotors before the choppers reached their designated landing zones and started organizing themselves. But within moments the Chinooks reached their designated holding pattern and laid down heavy suppressive fire.
Roused from his sleep, Kallay shouted orders to execute the hostages. A few rebels began running towards the hut where the hostages cringed in fear. The rescue team designated to extricate them had not yet reached, and it seemed that the hostages would be killed before it could. The mission could turn into a complete disaster.
Fortunately for the hostages, there was a third element in play. After a week of watching from the periphery, marksmen from the SAS observation team had inched forward and were placed between the rebels and the hostages. Their precision fire cut down the rebels while the extrication team secured the hostages. The commandos then began searching for the liaison officer who had been kept in a separate hut.
Meanwhile, the assault in Magbeni was running into major problems. A chance mortar explosion had wounded many Paras officers and the rebels were regrouping with heavy weapons. Captain Danny Matthews of the Paras took over command and called for air support. As the Lynx laid down strafing fire, the Paras charged the rebels and annihilated the Magbeni camp.
Within 30 minutes it was all over. The rescue team lifted out of the battle zone with all the prisoners and their own injured (one of them, fatally). They also had a bonus cargo on board. Foday Kallay had been captured alive hiding under his bed.
This operation was a turning point in Sierra Leone’s history. The fearsome reputation of British commandos swept through other camps, where rebels dreaded that they would be the next to wake up to the thump of helicopters. Many began surrendering. Within months, the rebels were routed.
Operation Barras has many lessons, least of which is the combined potential of technical and human intelligence. The operation could not have got off the drawing board without the scrap of paper that gave planners the first break; it could not have succeeded without the information obtained through satellite imagery. The minute by minute intelligence fed by the SAS observation team on the ground, and their intervention at critical moments, were the pivots on which the operation hinged.
A third critical element was the political decisiveness and resolute action by Blair in authorizing what is now acknowledged to be one of the most risky rescue missions of all time. But the results were worth it. All hostages were rescued intact for the loss of one commando. The psychological impact went further —it became the hinge around which the Sierra Leone government could seize the initiative back from the rebel militia.
And Foday Kallay was sentenced to 50 years in prison.
Raghu Raman is an expert and a commentator on internal security
This is the concluding part of a two-part series. Comments are welcome at email@example.com