It was a famous military coup de thÃ©Ã¢tre – the spectacular SAS rescue of British troops held by vicious Sierra Leone guerrillas. But, 10 years later, a respected author reveals the real story: 200 rebels killed, their corpses hidden … and the truth buried by Tony Blair
The SAS troopers inched unobserved through thick tropical undergrowth to within yards of a dingy, tin-roofed house where six British soldiers were being held prisoner by Sierra Leone rebels.
Grimy with sweat and dirt from the jungle floor, camouflage kit sodden from rainy-season downpours, the SAS team had deployed covertly to Gberi Bana, the riverside village stronghold of an ill-disciplined but ruthless rabble known as the West Side Boys.
For 48 hours, the special forces observation team had used high-tech listening equipment and vision-enhancers to assemble the clearest posÂsible intelligence picture of where the six prisÂoners were being held and the exact defensive capabilities of their captors.
Up to that point, the emphasis had been ontalking the rebels into releasing the prisoners,a strategy that initially made progress. The captured patrol from the Royal Irish Regiment originally numbered 12 – 11 British soldiers plus their local Sierra Leone liaison officer – and negotiators had succeeded in securing the freedom of five Britons.
But what the hidden troopers heard and saw from the secret observation post changed everything. West Side Boys gunmen were inflicting a violent sexual assault on at least one of the ÂBritish prisoners. “˜That was the point when the decision was taken to go in and get them out,’ a British special forces source said.
Part of the story of the resulting helicopter-borne rescue raid, known by its military codename as Operation Barras, is known.
At dawn on September 10, 2000, Gberi Bana was assaulted by D Squadron from the SAS while, a mile away on the opposite, southern bank of the Rokel river, a company of Paras launched an infantry attack on two other villages called Magbeni and Forodugu to suppress any threat of a counterÂattack from rebels based there.
All seven prisoners were rescued at the cost of one British fatality, Brad Tinnion from the SAS who was hit by a round from an AK-47 – the weapon of choice of rebels the world over – in the early stages of the helicopter insertion.
Eleven British suffered injuries, none life-threatening, while the bodies of 25 rebels were later handed over by the British to the Sierra Leone police.
Within hours, the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, stood in front of Downing Street issuing a sombre tribute to the “˜skill, professionalism and courage’ of all armed forces involved, mentioning only the rescue of the hostages.
But as so often in his leadership, Blair was dissembling.
During research for my new book, Chasing The Devil: The Search For Africa’s Fighting Spirit, it became clear that Barras involved a second, more controversial component: the complete destruction of the West Side Boys as a fighting force.
While the hostages were flown to freedom by helicopter within 30 minutes, British forces stayed on the ground around Gberi Bana for four more hours, hunting down and engaging the rebels. No quarter was given.
At least 200 enemy combatants were killed during and after the rescue, including several women and children. An SAS soldier had even been deployed on a Mi-24 Hind attack helicopter from the Sierra Leone government circling overhead.
Connected by radio to the troops on the ground, he co-ordinated rocket fire from the helicopter on to rebel positions.
There is no suggestion any rebels were executed and it appears all fatalities occurred in combat. During the country’s civil war, it was common for women and children to take partin fighting.
But what happened next raises questions about the confidence British commanders had in justifying the large-scale loss of life. Faced with many bodies, the decision was taken to conceal the number of enemy fatalities by disÂposing of some of them.
Two Sierra Leone witnesses said Âbodies were flown out of the village by ChinÂook helicopter, the same aircraft that delivered the assault force. One witness said he saw at least two bodies being dropped in the Rokel while the other described the floor of the helicopter fuselage running red with blood.
A British special forces source said: “˜They were dropped in the river, dropped across the jungle, and some buried in mass graves. It was just not politically acceptable to have so many dead after a rescue operation. It did not sit well with New Labour’s supÂposedly ethical foreign policy.’
The Ministry of Defence declined to comment on the revelations. Repeated requests for an official reaction made under the Freedom Of Information Act were turned down on the grounds of expense and of exemptions the Government enjoys when dealing with operations by special forces.
With the tenth anniversary of the operation approaching, it took me more than a year to build up the full picture of what happened at Gberi Bana.
During visits to the village, I interviewed civilians who survived the attacks. And in Freetown, capital of Sierra Leone, I tracked down surviving members of the West Side Boys.
Six senior rebels, including the comÂmander, Foday Kallay, 39, survived the attack and spent time in jail, although they were never charged in connection with the abduction or maltreatment of the British patrol. Last year, they were all released.
The assault on Gberi Bana was a highly sensitive operation, not least because at the time Sierra Leone was still in the throes of a civil war that had festered since 1991, claiming tens of thousands of lives.
Just four months earlier, Britain had effectively taken ownership of Âfinishing the war when an expeditionary force had flown into Freetown to reinforce a United Nations peaceÂkeeping mission in danger of being overrun by rebels.
The brigadier then in command of British forces, David Richards – now a full general and recently appointed as Chief of the Defence Staff – boldly used his troops not just to rescue British passport-holders but to reinforce and revitalise the Sierra Leone army. A British-led military training mission continues in the country today.
When the Royal Irish Regiment patrol was captured by the West Side Boys on August 25, 2000, it was immediately clear that the incident could have a serious impact on efforts to end the civil war.
While it was routine for the SAS to make ready one of its squadrons should a rescue mission be authorised, what was not so routine was the intense interest in the operation taken by the senior commanders of British special forces.
The overall chief, known as the Director of Special Forces, Brigadier John Holmes, flew out to Freetown to oversee the crisis. While negotiations continued to try to free the patrol, the SAS carried out its preparations for a rescue, meticulously laying out a flat-plan of the hostage house and rehearsing an assault. And when Barras was launched, the troops were given free rein to engage the enemy.
“˜The SAS carry out robust operÂations all the time, no more so than in Iraq and Afghanistan, but what stands out about Barras is that the rules of engagement were freer than perhaps any other operation in recent times,’ the special forces source said. “˜Basically, it was a free-fire zone.’
Such was the dominance of the British forces on the ground that a survivor remembers hearing British voices shouting “˜Come out, West Side Boys, if you are a man’ as the village was searched in the hours after the hostages had been freed.
Only one official statement was issued by the Ministry of Defence on the operation – one that made no mention of the SAS involvement, in line with official policy of offering no comment on British special forces.
It said: “˜The West Side Boys fought fiercely and engaged in sporadic follow-up fighting for some time while the UK forces were preparing for their self-extraction, having released the hostages.’
Such was the control of the village by the SAS that the troopers had time to collect the bodies of dead rebels. After donning surgical gloves, some of the British soldiers dragged the corpses and arranged them in lines.
The area was sufficiently safe for the troopers to take photographs of each other, which I have seen but promised not to reproduce for Âsecurity reasons.
One photograph is arranged like a grisly hunting souvenir with a dozen British soldiers, helmets removed, faces streaked with camouflage cream, posing with their weapons in front of a long line of dead rebels lying on a patch of bare earth near a house in Gberi Bana.
Mohamed “˜Turkish’ Sesay, 33, is a former member of the West Side Boys who fell out with Kallay. On the morning of the attack, he said he was being guarded in a house in the village by Kallay loyalists.
“˜When the helicopters first came, the guards ran away and I went down to the river and hid my wife, Adya, in the water with our son, Fudya, who was about 18 months old,’ he said. “˜She is good at swimming and whenever a helicopter came over, she went under the water.’
As the hours passed and the firing in the village died down, Sesay crept up from the riverbank in the direction of the house where the prisÂoners had been held.
“˜I heard British voices shouting, “Come out, West Side Boys, come out if you are a f****** man,””…’ he said.
He described how he hid in the wreckage of an old house and saw tiny red lights from the aiming system of the weapons used by the SAS troops as they flicked over surfaces such as walls and tree trunks.
Sesay said he saw two bodies drop from a British helicopter into the Rokel river after it took off from the village.
Musa Bangura is now a major in the Sierra Leone army, but ten years ago he was a lieutenant serving as the liaison officer for the British patrol that was captured by the rebels.
While all the British were treated badly, Maj Bangura was given specially bad treatment by the rebels, kept for days in an earth pit, urinated and defecated on by his tormentors who would drag him out from time to time to beat him up.
His arms bear the scars from where they were tied with a cable and his kidneys do not function properly as a result of 16 days with only filthy rainwater and stale urine to drink.
He was not being held in the same house as the six Britons when the rescue operation was launched. The SAS sought him out at the second location and he was flown to safety.
“˜From the blood and the remains on the floor of the helicopter, it is my belief that the aircraft was used to fly bodies from the village,’ he said.
The recovery by helicopter of enemy dead is not standard procedure for the armed forces during a live combat operation, if only because it represents an unnecessary risk to aircraft.
All it would take would be one rebel survivor with a rocket-Âpropelled grenade to take down a helicopter, so the fact the British forces bothered to transfer 25 corpses to the Sierra Leone police on the day of the assault is abnormal.
Despite the clear-up, many bodies were left in the undergrowth and ruins of village huts blown up in the assault. When the British finally left the village, Âsurvivors emerged from the bush where they had hidden themselves.
Passineh Conteh, 77, said he saw “˜many, many bodies’. When asked to be more specific, he said “˜more than 20’.
Francis Toronka, a teacher in his 40s, returned to the village weeks after the assault and he saw “˜at least 50 skulls’ in open bush and down on the river bank. “˜For months after the invasion, human remains would be washed up by the tide in the river,’ he said.
It is clear Barras was a turning point in the civil war. By mid-2000, the West Side Boys had become the most serious obstacle to peace. Unpredictable and violent, they preyed on civilian traffic using the main highway linking Freetown to the rest of the counÂtry, raping women, stealing property and murdering innocent travellers.
Senior commanders told how Kallay ordered rivals executed if they posed a threat to him. One victim, Morlai Kamara, was decapitated and his head displayed as a trophy on the bonnet of Kallay’s jeep.
Within days of Barras, the West Side Boys had been wound up, its commanders in custody, its surviving foot soldiers limping out of the jungle to take part in a national Âdisarmament programme.
Barras was much more than a Ârescue operation, but for political reasons it has taken ten years for the story to be told of how the SAS hastened the ending of the civil war.
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