How the British Army and the SAS helped end the civil war in Sierra Leone

I want to take you back to the year 2000 to tell a story about how even the smallest intervention can have the biggest impact.

You might have seen the news recently about how British planes are being used to transport French troops and supplies to Mali, West Africa for their military mission against rebel Islamists. Without French intervention the jihadist forces would have taken the capital Bamako in a matter of days, threatening the stability of the whole of West Africa. I was pleased to see the British and the French working together to help the people of Mali, and here’s why…

In the early 1990s, Sierra Leone, located in West Africa and roughly the size of Scotland, was about to enter into a civil war that would last almost ten years at the cost of 50,000 lives and the displacement of half of the country’s 4.5 million population. Not only that, many thousands more were left maimed for life due to unspeakable acts carried out by the rebel group Revolutionary United Front (RUF).

Sierra Leone © National Geographic

Sierra Leone © National Geographic

Foday Sankoh was travelling around Sierra Leone in the 1980s, working as a photographer when he came into contact with many young radicals who were frustrated with the lack of education and social justice in the country. He found his way to the guerrilla training camps of Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya where his companions included the future leader of Liberia, Charles Taylor, and other West African revolutionaries.

After training in Libya, Sankoh and his comrades Abu Kanu and Rashid Mansaray went to Liberia where they formed a close alliance with Taylor and served with his National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) rebel group.

Foday Sankoh ©BBC

Foday Sankoh ©BBC

After their spell with the NPFL, Sankoh, Kanu and Mansary headed back home to Sierra Leone and started the task of recruiting local youths to their newly formed Revolutionary United Front rebel group. The RUF attracted a wide range of disillusioned intellectuals and youths who were becoming increasingly fed up with president Joseph Momoh’s corruption, mismanagement of the diamond sector and abuse of power.

The RUF were initially very popular with the people of Sierra Leone. They promised free health care, free education and a fair distribution of diamond revenues. But Sankoh’s promises were not sincere and the RUF began to attack settlements in the diamond-rich areas of the country.

Sankoh never paid his RUF soldiers regularly and expected them to loot to survive under “Operation Pay Yourself”. After his comrades Kanu and Mansaray complained about these tactics, Sankoh had them executed.

Joseph Momoh

Joseph Momoh

The RUF started a guerrilla campaign against President Momoh and with a civil war about to erupt, Liberia’s Charles Taylor and his NPFL rebel group saw a chance to profit from their neighbour’s troubles with a greedy eye on the diamond mines. He offered the RUF rebels guns and ammunition, which they could use in their war to oust President Momoh, in return for ‘blood’ diamonds which Taylor could then sell on to finance his own campaigns back in Liberia.

Charles Taylor in 1990 © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or  its affiliated companies. All rights reserved

Charles Taylor in 1990
© 2012 Guardian

A year into the RUF’s campaign, President Momoh was overthrown in a military coup and over the next few years, as the civil war raged on, several presidents came and went until Ahmed Tejan Kabbah of the Sierra Leone People’s Party was elected as president in 1996.

RUF rebels ©BBC

RUF rebels ©BBC

In 1999, the Lomé Peace Accord was signed and an immediate ceasefire between the main parties to the civil war was agreed. The deal gave the RUF status as a legitimate political party, a role in the Sierra Leone Government and seats in the cabinet. Foday Sankoh was appointed vice president—the second most powerful position in the country, and was granted control over all of Sierra Leone’s diamond mines.

The Lomé deal did little to stabilise the security situation though as many rebels refused to commit to it and in 2000 the RUF rebels started their most gruesome atrocities against the people of Sierra Leone.

AP Photo/Adam Butler

A victim of  the RUF’s brutality © AP Photo/Adam Butler

They committed widespread rape and murder and used machetes and axes to hack off the hands, arms and legs of men, women and children to drive fear into their opponents in order to stop them voting during elections. Victims were sometimes given a choice – they could have their hand cut of at the wrist or the elbow, or what they called ‘short sleeve or long sleeve’. The rebels who filled the most bags with severed hands and feet could win a promotion. Thousands of boys and girls were abducted and forced to serve as soldiers or as prostitutes, were kept on drugs and often forced to murder their own parents.

A victim of the RUF's brutality ©Travis Lupick/Al Jazeera

A victim of the RUF’s brutality ©Travis Lupick/Al Jazeera

With the situation spiraling out of control and the government unable to stop the rebels, the UN sent thousands of troops to the country and they took up positions in areas under RUF control. Soon though they were pushed back and over powered by the rebels and in early 2000, the RUF captured 500 UN troops.

They used the captured UN soldiers’ weapons and armoured personnel carriers in their plan to take control of the capital Freetown. As they made their advance on the city they began to unleash “Operation No Living Thing” as they went.

Freetown

Freetown

With half of Sierra Leone now under the control of the RUF and the Sierra Leonean government and the United Nations in no position to stop their advance, the situation was becoming dire.

The UN issued a statement condemning the violence, after which the Secretary-General Kofi Annan turned to the British ambassador, telling him that the UN now expected the United Kingdom, as the former colonial power, to intervene directly.

On 5 May, the British government continued to state that it would provide only logistical and technical support to the UN troops, privately though they were exploring options for a military deployment and a few days later they agreed to send 800 British paratroopers out to Freetown. At the time the RAF lacked aircraft large enough to transport Chinooks and so helicopter crews were forced to fly themselves to Freetown in a 3,000 mile flight that became the longest self-deployment of helicopters in British history.

Royal Air Force Chinooks land in Freetown on 8th May, 2000.

Royal Air Force Chinooks land in Freetown on 8th May, 2000

The paratroopers landed in Freetown on 8th May, 2000 with a limited mission – named Operation Palliser – which was to secure Lungi airport and evacuate British nationals and foreigners out of the country as the civil war raged on around them. The mission was expected to last for ten days, after which time they would depart and leave Sierra Leone to its fate.

After landing at Lungi airport, brigadier David Richards, force commander of the mission, approached the capital by crossing Man O’War Bay in a dinghy. He looked out at the water, which seemed to be full of logs, but soon realised the ‘logs’ were floating dead bodies, many of them children. As he entered Freetown he witnessed the shocking sight of hundreds of amputees, terrified refugees streaming into the city, blood-stained hospital corridors packed with the injured and hundreds more dead bodies – all victims of “Operation No Living Thing”. He knew that once the British troops left in a few days, the people of Sierra Leone would have no protection and that the capital would fall to the RUF.

Sir David Richards ©Independent

Sir David Richards ©Independent

Richards decided to take a huge risk. His first port of call was President Kabbah who was preparing to leave the country via a helicopter parked outside his house. “You won’t be needing that, I promise you,” Richards told the president.

Going against what the British army were there for, Richards promised they would supply arms and ammunition to the Sierra Leonean government forces and that British helicopters would be made available to move men and material around in order to defeat the RUF rebels. He saw that the equipment they had brought for the evacuation would be enough to end the civil war but the MoD began to put increasing pressure on Richards to complete the job they had sent him to do and get out of there.

Richards knew he need to get a message above the MoD and directly to prime minister Tony Blair and so devised a plan to use the media to get that message across. “There is no longer any pretence,” Alan Little said in a BBC news report at the time, “that this operation is about evacuation. It is about much, much more than that.”

When the government finally realised that Richards’ plan would be successful, Tony Blair gave him the go ahead.

British soldiers set up their position in Freetown on 9th May 2000

British soldiers set up their position in Freetown on 9th May 2000

British soldiers took up positions around the capital and patrolled the streets to reassure residents. The paratroopers were joined by HMS Illustrious just off the coast and harriers from Illustrious flew reassurance patrols over Freetown.

On 17th May the British paratroopers came into direct contact with the rebels when the RUF attacked a British position near Lungi airport. The firefight lasted several hours but the paras pushed them back and the RUF were forced to retreat with 30 casualties. On the same day Foday Sankoh was captured and handed over to the British army, leaving the RUF in complete disarray.

The MoD ordered a rotation of the British forces deployed in Sierra Leone and so the paratroopers were ordered back to the United Kingdom and were replaced by the 42 Commando Royal Marines.

Royal Marines landing on the beaches of Freetown

Royal Marines landing on the beaches of Freetown

With the RUF still refusing to disarm, the Royal Marines began training the Sierra Leone Army for a confrontation, and alongside the UN troops they shifted the momentum of the war and pushed the RUF back past the outskirts of Freetown. This forced the rebels to follow through on disarming and demobilising.

Brigadier Komba Mondeh, an officer in the Sierra Leone army, looks at how the story might have ended. “It worked out for General Richards because we won the war,” he said. “If it had gone wrong, if a helicopter had gone down with 10 British soldiers killed, then they would have taken him back to Britain in handcuffs, and chopped him off at the knees.”

“London wanted me to get the British nationals out and then bugger off,” General Richards said, “But the kind of personnel and weapons you would need to carry out an evacuation in a conflict zone was much the same as a small-scale military operation to push back the rebels and luckily we were a long way away.”

General Sir David Richards is now head of the British Army. “It is the best thing I have ever done in the British Army. I have no regrets, none at all. You can’t look at a little kid with his hand chopped off and just walk away. You have to sometimes make this choice, do what you think is right, even if people above you don’t approve.”

President Kabbah, who would have fled the country were it not for Richards’ reassurances, declared that ‘The People of Sierra Leone will never forget the British generosity in their time of greatest need’.

After the British troops helped to push the RUF rebels back in mid-2000, they continued their stay in the country as a part of a Short Term Training Team (STTT). But a stark contrast of what could have gone wrong with Richards’ brave mission came a few weeks later when 11 members of the Royal Irish Regiment, who were returning from a visit to Jordanian peacekeepers based in the hills outside Freetown, were taken hostage by a militia group known as the West Side Boys. Alongside the 11 Royal Irish Regiment was the patrol’s liaison from the Sierra Leone Army – Lieutenant Musa Bangura.

The West Side Boys were another rebel group operating in Sierra Leone and, like the RUF, were particularly brutal. They were fond of kidnapping children and dehumanising them in order to participate in their killing sprees. They dressed in bizarre clothing, namely women’s wigs and flip-flops and were constantly either drunk or under the influence of heroin and cocaine. This made them completely unreliable and erratic and they wouldn’t think twice about killing the man standing next to them – even if it were one of their own.

West Side Boys ©bit.ly/XDEHBT

West Side Boys ©bit.ly/XDEHBT

Negotiations began between Lieutenant Colonel Simon Fordham, commanding officer of the Royal Irish Regiment, and the West Side Boys leader Foday Kallay. They met in the jungle where Kallay gave Fordham their demands – they wanted medical supplies and a satellite phone.

At the meeting, Kallay brought one of the British hostages with him to prove they were still alive and in reasonable health. The British soldier saluted Fordham and shook hands with him before being led away by Kallay. During the handshake, he managed to transfer the lid of a pen into Fordham’s hand and when Kallay was out of sight, Fordham looked inside the lid to find a detailed hand-drawn map of the area where the hostages were being held.

Kallay and the West Side Boys agreed to the release of five soldiers in exchange for the satellite telephone and medical supplies, but with six soldiers still hostage, and negotiations breaking down due to the erratic behaviour of the rebels, a rescue mission was looking likely.

From the map and satellite images of the area, the army could see that the West Side Boys were stationed in two positions. The hostages were being held at Kallay’s headquarters on one side of the Rokel Creek in Gberi Bana. Several hundred other rebels were located across the water in Magbeni.

It was decided that if the SAS were to launch an assault that they would need the support of the paratroopers and so 150 paras were flown out to Sierra Leone on standby. Their job was to secure Magbeni while the SAS went into Gberi Bana to carry out the rescue.

Under the cover of night the SBS marines delivered two SAS observation teams into the jungle, via an inflatable raiding craft, to observe each camp and gather intelligence for the coming operation. It took them several days to get to the camps after making their way through some of the worst jungle in the world. Once concealed in the jungle and only 500 metres away from the hostages, they lay there for three days, assessing the best approach for the assault, pausing only to roll over when they needed to urinate in a bottle or defecate in a bag.

A full jungle assault on foot was ruled out as was a road and water approach. It left them with no other choice than to take the most dangerous option and one they did not want to take – an air assault. The soldiers would be transported to the scene via Chinook helicopters but this was a huge risk, making them much easier targets for the enemy and the worry that for the rescue of a few hostages they could potentially lose 40 or more SAS soldiers if the Chinook were shot down.

While the SAS observation teams were at work in the jungle, the rest of the SAS soldiers and the paras established a base 30 miles south of Freetown where, thanks to the map, they rehearsed the assault, named Operation Barras, in a replica of the village.

The plan was to assault the two villages simultaneously. Two Chinooks were to drop the paras at Magbeni. Their objective was to attack 200 West Side Boys and stop them helping Kallay and the rebels at Gberi Bana. Two more Chinooks carrying SAS soldiers were to land at Gberi Bana, one of the teams would rescue the hostages and the other would clear the rest of the village. During the operation the soldiers would have covering fire from two Lynx helicopters plus the observation teams already in place on the ground. As well as rescuing the Royal Irish soldiers, the SAS were also tasked with rescuing a group of Sierra Leonean civilians who were also being held hostage and Sierra Leonean Lieutenant Musa Bangura who was being treated particularly badly by Kallay.

The task force left their camp outside of Freetown at 06:16 on the morning of 10th September. Meanwhile the SAS observation teams got into position at the edge of Gberi Bana to provide covering fire for the SAS troops who would have to fast rope off the choppers.

Operation Barras

Operation Barras

The Chinooks dropped the SAS troops off in Gberi Bana 24 minutes later but they were soon under fire from Kallay and the West Side Boys. On the other side of the river in Magbeni the Lynx helicopters opened fire as the paras approached their positions.

Back in Gberi Bana the SAS managed to hold off the attack and swept through the village rescuing every single hostage alive and capturing Foday Kallay, all in under 20 minutes.

SAS soldiers at Gberi Bana ©bit.ly/XDEHBT

SAS soldiers at Gberi Bana ©bit.ly/XDEHBT

In Magbeni the paras came under mortar fire by the rebels and some of the troops were seriously injured but they soon got the situation under control and by 08:00 they had secured the area.

12 British soldiers were wounded and one trooper, Bradley Tinnion, was killed during the operation. Twenty five West Side Boys were also killed during the assault with many more captured.

opbarras01td1

Captured West Side Boys ©bit.ly/XDEHBT

In the weeks following the assault, several hundred West Side Boys, who had fled during the attack, surrendered to peacekeepers in the country, effectively ending their reign. They were no longer seen as any kind of military threat to Sierra Leone.

Foday Kallay and the other West Side Boys who were captured spent several years in jail after the operation but were released in 2009.

Operation Barras was the largest British hostage rescue mission in modern history. It was described by an SAS soldier as “not a clinical, black balaclava, Princes Gate type operation. It was a very grubby, green operation with lots of potential for things to go wrong”.

Operation Palliser and Operation Barras had a huge impact on Sierra Leone, helping to end the decade long civil war and to this day a British-led military training mission continues in the country.

Aftermath: The camp at Gberi Bana where troops were held hostage © Stephen Morrison

Aftermath: The camp at Gberi Bana where troops were held hostage © Stephen Morrison

Charles Taylor went on to become the president of Liberia until he fled to Nigeria in 2003. He was captured trying to leave Nigeria and handed over to the Special Court for Sierra Leone to stand trial for his role in the civil war. At the conclusion of the trial earlier this year he was sentenced to 50 years in prison after being found guilty of 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity including murder, rape, sexual slavery and conscription of child soldiers.

While Taylor never set foot in Sierra Leone, he sponsored the RUF rebels in order to destabilise the country and reap the benefits of the diamond mining industry, aiding a decade long war at the cost of tens of thousands of lives.

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3 thoughts on “How the British Army and the SAS helped end the civil war in Sierra Leone

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