Operation Barras

Sierra Leone is a former British colony in West Africa, about the size of Scotland and has been wracked by civil war since 1991, when rebels calling themselves the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) attempted to bring down the government. A militia calling itself “The West Side Niggaz”, later amended to “The West Side Boys”, originally fought on the rebel side but later changed allegiance to the government and were expected to assimilate into the newly reformed Sierra Leone Army, but they refused and began operating as bandits from the abandoned villages of Magbeni and Gberi Bana on opposite sides of Rokel Creek.

Like many African militia groups, the West Side Boys were a dangerous mix of ex soldiers and civilians with little discipline and greatly influenced by American rap and gangsta style music. They were heavy users of marijuana and heroin, bought with conflict diamonds. Many members of the group were children, abducted after their parents were killed by the “recruiters” while others were forced to participate in the killing of their families to brutalise and dehumanise them. It was thought that the gang’s total strength was around 600, but that some 400 were in the two villages.

The gang terrified local inhabitants by dressing up in monkey skins, abducting children for rape, torture and mutilation. Their motto was “What makes the grass grow? Blood, Blood, Blood”. Their camp also contained captured male villagers used as servants as well as women sex slaves. The gang revelled in the notoriety raised by their savage activities and played up to the media, including the BBC, who wrote about them, describing their bizarre clothing such as pink sunglasses, shower caps, women’s wigs and flip flops and being almost permanently drunk.

By May 2000, the RUF controlled large areas of the country and began advancing towards the capital Freetown and, by doing so cut the road between it and the main airfield at Lungi. At the government’s request, British forces were deployed to Sierra Leone, initially in a non combatant role, tasked with aiding the evacuation of foreign nationals, particularly those from Britain or Commonwealth countries. British troops from 1st Para secured the airport and surrounding areas to aid the evacuation. Within two days the majority of those wishing to leave had gone, but following the British arrival, many chose to stay. British personnel and aircraft remained ready to evacuate any entitled persons who had been unable to reach Freetown earlier and to evacuate the British High Commission if the security situation deteriorated.

Following the evacuation the British mandate began to expand, assisting in the rescue of besieged peacekeepers, plus aiding the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (known as UNAMSIL) and the Sierra Leone Army (SLA).

On the 17th of May, British paratroops came into direct contact with the RUF when the rebels attacked British defences at Lungi Loi, a village a few miles from the airport. The village was garrisoned by the Para’s Pathfinder Patrol who opened fire on the group of some 40 rebels and radioed back to Lungi for support. Two Chinook helicopters inserted Paras from C Company plus a mortar team and then strafed the surrounding bush to suppress enemy fire. An army Gazelle flew overhead spotting for the mortar team as they pounded the RUF with high explosives. The Paras were also helped by a unit of Nigerians operating under the UN who protected the village’s rear approach. The RUF hurriedly withdrew leaving four dead and a number of wounded. Harriers from HMS Illustrious stationed off the coast, flew patrols over the area to deter any further attacks.

Having secured Freetown and Lungi, the Paras left and were replaced by a Short Term Training Team (STTT) whose mission was to train and rebuild the Sierra Leone Army. In July 2000, the 1st Battalion, Royal Irish Regiment were sent to take over from the outgoing 2nd Battalion Royal Anglian Regiment. On the 25th a patrol of 1st Irish was sent out to check on a unit of Jordanian peacekeepers attached to UNAMSIL, based at the village of Makiaka. While there, they were told by the Jordanians that, despite their earlier reluctance, the West Side Boys militia were now prepared to disarm and the commander, Major Alan Marshall, against standing orders decided to divert the patrol to investigate en route back to their base.

The patrol turned off the road and on to a track that led to Magbeni, the village where the West Side Boys were based, but as they approached the village the track was blocked by a Bedford truck with an anti aircraft gun mounted on it. The patrol halted and was quickly surrounded by a large group of West Side Boys who forced them into canoes on Rokel Creek and took them to Gberi Bana, the village on the other side of the creek, threatening to kill them as part of a plan to drive the British from Sierra Leone. The rebels then issued a number of wild demands in return for the release of the patrol.

British forces in Sierra Leone were operating under the authority of the Sierra Leone government, but President Ahmad Kabbah gave permission for the British to conduct their own negotiations for the patrol’s release. The commanding officer of 1st Irish, Lieutenant Colonel Simon Fordham and a small group met with the rebel leader, the self styled “Brigadier” Foday Kallay to negotiate the release of the patrol. Talks dragged on and at the meeting on the 29th August, Fordham demanded proof that the captive soldiers were still alive. Kallay produced two officers from the patrol group, Major Marshall and Captain Flaherty who, while shaking hands with Fordham, secretly passed him a sketch map of Gberi Bana, showing the layout of the village and the building in which the soldiers of the patrol were being held.

Two days later Fordham managed to negotiate the release of five of the hostages in exchange for a satellite phone and some medical supplies. Kallay stated that the remaining prisoners would not be released until all his demands had been met and used the phone to contact the BBC for a lengthy interview and to outline a series of demands which included immunity from prosecution, safe passage to the UK to take up university courses and guaranteed acceptance into the Sierra Leone Army.

The behaviour of Kallay and his men during the negotiations was erratic, due to their prolonged use of cannabis and cocaine and made progress difficult because the drugs made the gang forget previous discussions. The British were fearful that the gang might simply take the hostages and disappear deeper into the bush where the task of rescuing them would be impossible and began to make plans for a rescue mission which they called Operation Barras.

It was originally intended that a surprise attack by SAS and SBS forces would be launched, but given the size of the gang and the two locations on both sides of the river, the operation could not be carried out by Special Forces alone and it was decided to deploy a company of paratroops to support the mission. Soldiers from A Company, 1st Para, commanded by Major Matthew Lowe, plus some specialist units including signals group, snipers, heavy machine gun sections and a mortar section, were ordered to prepare for action and moved to South Cerney in Gloucester where they were briefed on the mission and then flown to Dakar in Senegal to be close when required.

British planners realised that should the West Side Boys learn of
troops arriving in the area, they might well just kill the hostages, so it became important that no news of the deployment leaked out. Meanwhile units from the SAS and SBS infiltrated the area around the two villages and began to gather intelligence of layout and numbers as well as identifying landing sites for helicopters.

Planners looked at various ways to attack the two bases and finally decided that the insertions would be made with three CH 47 Chinooks from the Joint Special Forces Aviation Wing (JSFAW), plus two Lynx Mark 7 attack helicopters from 657 Squadron Army Air Corps and a Mil-24 Hind gunship flown by local forces.

Jim Keys
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Jim Keys

Since his retirement Jim Keys has indulged his passion for history, writing two books on Britain’s past: The Dark Ages and The Bloody Crown. He is currently writing the last of the trilogy, Fighting Brits which covers Britain’s military struggles from the Armada to Afghanistan.

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