(An Eyewitness account of the Operation undertaken in Congo by Pak Army)
25 February 2005, like most other days in the year, was a moderate day in Bunia, the eastern part of Democratic Republic (DR) of Congo. William Lacy Swing, the Senior Representative of the Secretary General (SRSG), was on helicopter tour with eleven ambassadors from various countries and was convincing them on stable security and humanitarian situation in that region. The Ituri Brigade Commander Brig Dev Bahadur Ghale and myself, being the Pakistani Battalion Commander, accompanied. It was widely believed that the largest ever UN mission MONUC was fast losing its credence in maintaining peace in the area and was termed as “toothless mission” in the face of audacious and ever growing threats from various militant factions against civilian population and UN peacekeepers.
The entourage returned by afternoon. The Deputy Brigade Commander Col Mehmood, a Bangladeshi Officer broke the shocking news that nine Bangladeshi soldiers who were on a routine patrol that morning had been ambushed and killed. The worst was that the dead bodies were still at the ambush site since the rebels presumably Nationalist and Integrationist Front (FNI) Militia had encircled the area and were resisting evacuation. The sun was fast going down and aviation did not have night flying capability. The gut feeling was that if the bodies were not recovered in next few hours, they would probably never be recovered. Congo had a history of cannibalism. No orders to any troops had been given in the absence of command. PAKBAT-II (3 Punjab) was tasked to recover the dead bodies as soon as possible. A quick rescue mission was planned. Two MI-17 helicopters loaded with PAKBAT troops were rushed to the site within no time. The area had been effectively cordoned off by the rebels. Blue helmets were identified with some difficulty. The rebels opened fire. Troops jumped down from helicopters with running rotors and rushed for the bodies. All nine bodies were rescued amidst intense firing from nearby bushes. The bodies were badly mutilated. All the weapons and equipment had been taken away by the rebels. Bangladeshi troops had gathered at the landing site to receive their bodies. There were extremely moving scenes. Everyone had broken over fallen comrades. Next morning, the martyred were accorded highest protocol by the UN and local administration. PAKBAT, as a symbol of solidarity and support, carried one of the coffins to the C130 which had arrived from Bangladesh to carry martyrs to their loved ones. The feeling of pain, loss and losing was beyond description among Pakistani troops. There was deafening silence after the aircraft left. Nobody knew what was to follow. Under the circumstances, the UN mission couldn't go on. It was huge blow to the reputation of UN peace keepers. Bangladesh, one of the largest troop contributing countries, had suffered ever highest loss on a UN mission. Bangladesh Observed a day of mourning on 1 March 2005 for its fallen soldiers, the day when Loga Operation was being conducted. The Battalion was in no condition to undertake any punitive action against the perpetrators. In the evening, a meeting was called at the brigade HQ to review future course of action. It was decided to undertake military action against the rebels responsible for such a heinous crime. PAKBAT was once again tasked for the operation.
I was leading the PAKBAT troops as we moved to Tche, a distant location for this purpose. A platoon each from NEPBAT and South African were given in support besides Indian MI-25 and Bangladeshi MI-17 helicopters. On 28 February, a heliborne operation against suspected rebels' location was conducted which was only partially successful in finding few weapons. It was a tough and disappointing day. Late at night Major Abdul Hakeem Arif, passed credible information about Nationalist and Integrationist Front (FNI) headquarters in Loga village, some 22 kms from Tche. The information was passed quite late at night; hence no detailed planning could be done. Ground troops mounted in APCs set out for the operation by about 7A.M. The convoy had reached half way when an APC broke down beyond local repair. It could neither be returned nor taken along. There was grave risk in leaving it under the situation, that too without long range communication. However, no precious time could be wasted in deliberation. It was left under command a Nepalese Capt with some PAKBAT and NEPBAT troops with clear rules of engagement in case of a danger.
The rebels had been sufficiently alerted due to helicopters and APCs' noise. As APCs neared Loga village, they came under intense fire. It took an hour to enter the village. Maj Nisar with his troops entered the village by 1030 hours after intense gun battle. I soon realized that the troops had been surrounded from all directions. The football ground where helicopters carrying south African troops were about to land, had also been occupied by the rebels. The helicopters unaware of the ground danger, were immediately sent back. Troops under Capt Zia were rushed to get the ground cleared of rebels. He reported that the rebels were using heavy weapons including mortars and RPG-7s. This took considerable time and effort. FNI headquarters was established in a market as it was easy for them to collect extortion from population and shopkeepers. House to house clearance started as the troops made foothold. A lot of ammunition and weapons were being recovered. Maj Amir Zahid reported about presence of some suspicious person in a mud room. The person was not responding to any warning. Usually no chances are taken during violent search operations. However, prudence suggested careful checking. It revealed that a woman had covered herself under the blanket. She had given birth to a baby that morning and had been abandoned. She was immediately taken care of by our doctor, given some eatables and was comforted through the interpreter. On the other side, there was no let off from the fire. Rebels appeared to be under the influence of locally developed drugs which made them fight irrespective of losses. In the mean time, Capt Saqib reported safe landing of South African troops. By 1330, it was decided to call off the operation. Before the troops left the area, I observed that the mud room with the lady who had delivered the baby, had caught fire. Immediately, few soldiers were rushed to get the two occupants out. Before the roof collapsed, the lady and her baby had been taken out.
The troops reached the football ground with a lot difficulty since clean disengagement was difficult in the face of rebels' fire. Having secured the troops in the football ground, I asked Capt Deshpal Singh from India, the MI-25 pilot to engage the rebels. However, due to close proximity, the engagement could result in fratricide, advised the pilot who was observing the things in much better way. Hence, the troops had to rely on their own. Immediately an APC carrying 106 mm RR on an improvised mount was moved to support the troops. While the barrel was being lowered, it accidentally went off. Two soldiers who were just behind the APC were hit by massive back blast. Sep Itebar from SSG lost both his eyes while Sep Gulzar Ahmed damaged his eye and both ears.
Capt Desieko, the RSABAT (Royal South African) Platoon Commander was under tremendous pressure since his troops were exchanging fire with rebels across the elephant grass surrounding the football field. He was asked to call back his troops. Battle field confusion was at its best. PAKBAT troops facing outside were about to shoot at withdrawing South African troops due to similarity with rebels both in complexion and uniform. With nerve breaking care, the fratricide was avoided. SA troops had been inserted through Bangladeshi helicopters but for extraction, Indian MI-17 had been sent which had less capacity than the Bangladeshi. In addition, now there were two casualties which had to be evacuated to the base hospital. With a lot of difficulty, the additional troops were adjusted in the APCs. On checking the fate of broken APC and route, MI-25 pilots reported that the APC was safe; however, the rebels had laid ambushes at three different places. The troops were given orders to deal with the situation. After clearing ambush sites, entailing heavy exchange of fire, the convoy reached the broken APC sight. APC was towed with another APC and the convoy reached Tche around 10 p.m. Quick stock of men and material was undertaken and found in order. It was difficult to give count of militia's casualties. A careful estimate and the intelligence reports suggested militia casualties to be around 60.
The success of the operation had lasting impact on overall stability in DRC. New locations were occupied such as Magbwalu. It also paved way for elections. Success of the operation was widely covered by International Media, though local media was mostly silent. Maj Gen Moeen Ahmed, then CGS and later COAS Bangladesh Army, visited PAKBAT on 19 March 2005 and remarked, “I am extremely happy to visit 3 Punjab in Ituri, Also very happy to see that it is doing an excellent job in maintaining peace in the area. Thanks a lot for the support the battalion had provided on 25 February 2005, when we lost nine soldiers. All the best.” The performance of Pakistani troops caught attention of international media. New York Times, in its 3 March 2005 edition reported,
“The gun battle took place on Tuesday between 242 Pakistani peacekeepers and militia fighters. It broke out at a heavily fortified militia camp near the village of Loga, 20 miles north of Bunia, the capital of the lawless Ituri region. "While on operation we were fired upon, so we immediately responded," He said 50 to 60 militia members had been confirmed dead.”
A website 'News.telegraph.com' commented on 7 March 2005, “After years of passively watching while the world's most vicious conflict raged around them in Congo, United Nations peacekeepers have at last taken the fight to the enemy.” Aljazeera network also took the story on its website on 2 March 2005 and wrote, “The clash was one of the biggest involving the UN force in the DRC, where militiamen roam vast swathes of the lawless east of Africa's third-biggest country.” On the similar date, 2 March 2005, BBC also published the news commenting, “UN troops strike back in DR Congo. United Nations peacekeepers in the DRC have killed more than 50 militiamen in a gun battle in the north-east. The Pakistani UN troops had used helicopter gunships and armoured vehicles in the operation against the militia.”
The writer served in Congo during 2005 and led this operation.
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