On 19 September 2002, a well-planned Army mutiny and coup d’Etat against President Gbagbo shook the Republic of the Ivory Coast, in West Africa. This country that used to be hailed as a model of successful decolonisation had slowly descended into chaos since the death of President Felix Houphouet-Boigny. The coup, led by former President General Robert Guei, was a failure. General Guei was killed in the attempt. But the mutiny launched by soon-to-be-retrenched soldiers from their barracks in Bouake was a success. Taken by surprise, unable to resist, the loyalist part of the army managed to escape in disorder and somewhat regroup South of a front line going through Bondoukou, Bouake, Vavoua, Man and Danane, cutting effectively the country in two halves along ethnic and religious lines, the Muslims in the North and the Christians in the South.
At the beginning of October 2002, on the advice of Colonel Bob Denard, Commandant Marquez, ex-Commanding Officer of the Presidential Guard of the Comores, was invited to Abidjan to submit a proposal to reorganize the Presidential Security Unit. But immediately after his arrival, the situation changed dramatically: the rebels were pushing south on the whole front. The French Army stepped in, sending three thousand Foreign Legionnaires, Paratroopers and Marines in Operation Licorne to stop the rebel’s advance, but also to block any loyalist counter-offensive. From then on, they will effectively be sitting on the fence…The hawks in the Ivorian Government would see only a military solution to the crisis, and Marquez’s mission was now to create forthwith a new unit with white mercenary officers and Ivorian officers, NCOs and troops. They were selected on a voluntary basis from the best units of the Army, the Gendarmerie, the Republican Guard and the Navy Commandos. A formation and training period of 4 weeks was granted before the unit could be sent on its first combat mission.
Immediately, the phones started ringing in France and in South Africa. Old hands were recalled and younger volunteers recruited. In just a few days, the first mercenaries landed in Abidjan airport and got down to work. The focus of the training was movement under fire, firearms and heavy weapons practice. The Ivorians soldiers shot more live rounds in the first day than that had done in 5 years of service. It is true that like all Ivorians they had only known peace.
In one month, the unit, called Force Speciale, was formed. 30 Europeans cadres had been recruited. They came mostly from France and South Africa, but also from Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, England, Australia, Canada, Argentina and Romania. The four leaders, Marquez, Sanders, Lamarck and Jean-Pierre had been senior members of Denard’s team until his retirement after the last coup in the Comores in 1995. The younger mercenaries came mostly from the French Foreign Legion 2nd Parachute Regiment. On the Ivorian side, four hundred men were supposed to have been available for selection. In fact only one hundred were sent from their former units. A commander does not part easily with his best men… Thus no selection was possible. Equipment was provided by the FANCI (Ivory Coast National Armed Forces), by the Minister of Defense and the Office of the President. Not much actually was available, for the country was nearly bankrupt. The vehicles made available were fifteen Japanese 4x4 Hilux double-cabs for the Infantry platoons and two light trucks for the mortar group; all soft-skinned. The weapons supplied to the unit were AK47, some with “Kastyor” 40 mm grenade launcher, and Galil assault rifles, 7,62 mm PKM and 5,56 mm Neguev light machine guns, RPG 7, Bulgarian 12,7 mm machine guns mounted on the back of four of the Hilux, three 60 mm and four 82 mm mortars.
While Marquez and his men concentrated on the readiness of the ground troops, Sanders was seconded to the Air Force to set up the Air Wing. The Air Force had acquired three MI 24 “Hind” attack helicopters and hired 2 civilian MI 8 transport helicopters. The ground personnel and pilots were South-Africans, Bulgarians, Belarus and Ukrainians. The choppers had also only four weeks to be battle ready. The MI 8s and their courageous crews would be invaluable, especially during the siege of Blolequin.
Initially responding only to the Minister of Defense, the Force Speciale (FS, code name Fox-trot-Sierra) was soon integrated into the FANCI Order of Battle, but its missions would be given directly by the Chief of the Army, and it would be able to operate with a great deal of autonomy.
Mid-November, the FS was sent to Daloa 400 km northwest of Abidjan. Mission: take Vavoua, 60 km north of Daloa, and destroy the town rebel force, commanded by ex-Army sergeant Kone Zaccharia. The FS was supposed to be the spearhead of the offensive, reinforced by a Sagaie light tank equipped with a 90 mm canon, with Marquez in overall command. At D-1, the whole plan was turned upside down to respect Ivoirian susceptibilities; Cdt E. from the FANCI was put in charge, with the FS acting as reserve. This would turn out to be a costly mistake. The Ivorian officers, although trained by the French army, had never been in a real conflict and, while the mercenary officers had planned a night attack, Cdt E. was not comfortable with it…The troops started moving only at 10.00 am, 5 hours late, and too slowly in the beginning; invaluable daylight time was lost. At the Bahoulifla Bridge, the column was stopped by mortar fire and a pick-up mounted 14,5 mm machine gun. Orders were slow to come; Marquez could do nothing, as he had to respect the hierarchy. Sanders, in charge of command and control with Col Y. in Daloa, dispatched one of the MI 24 but the South African pilot shied away from approaching the bridge. He and other South Africans would be expelled from the country soon afterwards for incompetence and fraud. Finally the Sagaie managed to destroy the 14,5 with a well-placed 90 mm HE shell. The infantry could then cross the bridge and clear Bahoulifla. The column resumed its progression towards Vavoua, but now too fast, trying to make up the time lost in the morning, until Cdt E. was seriously wounded in an ambush, his radio operator killed and his vehicle destroyed. Only Lamarck ran forward to bring him back to the rear. With their commander out of action, the FANCI withdrew in disorder. Marquez gave orders to hold the northern end of the bridge. But the FS on its own was not strong enough and had to return as well to Daloa. Its casualties were one dead and six wounded.
After this first contact, five South-African mercenaries decided to leave the country finding the job too dangerous… Also, the lack of training of the Ivorians was made too obvious. It would have been better to recruit four hundred youths straight out of civvy streets and run a proper selection, in accordance with the mercenaries’ initial proposal.
At the same time the main rebel group, MPCI, launched an offensive from Seguela towards Man; while a strong rebel force coming from Liberia and supported by Liberian mercenaries took Danane. One MI 24 took off to destroy an enemy concentration in Danane while two French Army Gazelles engaged a rebel convoy between Man and Semien. But Man and Danane fell due to lack of ground troops. Only one week later would the Foreign Legion be able to retake Man airport; which would fall again soon as the balance of forces and the initiative were definitely on the rebel’s side. Only the MI 24s could hunt their convoys on the roads, hindering their freedom of movement, but they soon learnt to move only at night and the choppers were not equipped for night missions.
THE GREAT WEST
A new rebel movement had now appeared on the scene: the MPIGO, trained and supported by Liberians mercenaries sent by Charles Taylor, was moving fast from Danane towards the south; its ultimate goal being to take the whole of the Great West region and the harbour of San Pedro. The MPIGO was linked to the son of General Guei, and its ethnic base was mostly Yacouba. It was the only rebel group who had not signed a cease-fire or sent representatives to the Lome talks.
In this part of the country, the jungle reigns. The convoys and even the infantry cannot leave the roads, so thick is the forest, making it the ideal ambush terrain. Attack helicopters are useless, as even the roads disappear through the canopy of trees and the rebels were using the local population in the villages as human shields, and collateral damages had to be avoided at all cost. This was the direst crisis. The FS was sent urgently to Blolequin with the mission to retake the town of Toulepleu. All went well in the beginning. A few firefights took place on the way, but nothing of substance; and Toulepleu was taken easily, too easily. Intelligence gathered showed that the rebels had actually regrouped in a village 5 km north of the town and were certainly planning a night attack. To forestall them, Marquez decided to move north in view to establish a contact and mortar bomb the rebels. The forward element was instructed to disembark after three kms and approach the village on foot. But after only a couple of kms they fell into an well planned ambush. The first vehicle was destroyed by two RPG7 anti-tank rockets and hit by RPK fire. A Czech soldier of fortune was seriously wounded in the face by shrapnel and his driver had both legs shot through. 2 mercenaries rushed to their help under serious fire from the enemy and managed to bring them back to the rear. The ambush position was of textbook quality and the rebels were real professionals, trained and commanded by Liberians soldiers with South African mercenaries in support inside Liberia. Some of the younger volunteers did not react at all and most of the Ivorian soldiers were paralyzed by fear. Proving once more that there is no substitute for experience, two of the old hands sprayed the jungle’s edge with RPG7 anti-personnel rockets and Kastyor 40 mm grenades. Soon the mortars, 60 mm and 82 mm, joined the action, inflicting numerous casualties to the rebels and allowing the unit to withdraw back to Toulepleu. One platoon was in full run and would not stop until Guiglo where Sanders had send one MI 8 to casevac the wounded as it was the only secure landing zone usable at night in the area. The FS had taken a serious blow with ten men seriously wounded and its fighting spirit in tatters. It had to return to Daloa where two French and four more South African resigned. “The natural selection follows its course”, as one of the chibanis (old hands) puts it.
The “Force Speciale” was now down to twenty Europeans volunteers and eighty Ivorians. But this was the hard core. After this necessary period of breaking-in and battle proofing, with its unavoidable failures and rejects, successes would follow.
THE SIEGE OF BLOLEQUIN
The FS’s new mission was to hold Guiglo, which was threatened from the west and north; and, after resupply, to retake Blolequin, where the rebels had sent the local Ivorian forces in a complete rout. This time, the FS was in full control of the operation as well as being its spearhead, reinforced with one BMP-1 and one truck-mounted 20 mm canon. Before leaving Guiglo, the whole force, European volunteers and Ivorians had to go through a black magic ritual to put them “mystically in tune”, which would make them bulletproof ! D-Day was 8 December. The rebels were entrenched near the village of Zeaglo. The combat was intense but short-lived. With the BMP protected by the infantry, Zeaglo was soon cleared. The next day, Blolequin was taken without a fight. Once more, the rebels were waiting beyond the place and ambushed the FS a couple of miles from the town. 0ne RPG7 rocket hit the radio vehicle while “snipers” hidden in the trees opened fire. But this time the reaction was fast with a shower of 40 mm rifle grenades and 60 mm mortar bombs on the tree line, and no casualties were to be deplored. Not to be taken by surprise this time, the FS returned to Blolequin before nightfall and started digging in. From then on, Blolequin would be subjected to twenty days of siege. The road between Guiglo and Blolequin had been cut behind the FS as a rebel force coming from the north had reoccupied most of the villages, including Zeaglo and mobile ambushes were set up every day. The Ivorian CO in Guiglo, Cne Doumbia, trying to reach Blolequin by road with supplies, was badly injured on 13 December and had to be casevaced by air. Very quickly, an air bridge was set up by Sanders using the 2 MI 8 to keep the town supplied with food and ammunition. These two MI 8 and their Bulgarian crews were the most important factor in keeping the FS and Ivorians units in Blolequin alive, and thus the Great West under Government’s control. Every day, they would bring ammunition, rations and fresh food and casevac the wounded and the sick as malaria was decimating the troops. They had to land sometimes in the middle of a firefight, flying low to escape the enemy fire. The three MI 24 could not be used in this part of the country as they were impotent in front of an enemy scattered in the forest, and the likelihood of civilian casualties was too high. Sadly, the MI8 chief pilot, Lubo, was to be killed in Iraq when the insurgents shot down his Mi8. The only survivor of the crash, he was gunned down.
Meanwhile the French officers in Abidjan started joking about the “mercenaries’ Dien-Bien-Phu”. They were soon to be proven wrong.
Lamarck, nicknamed “the Vauban of Blolequin” had made a fortress of the town using a bulldozer to dig in strong points and trenches. The Ivorian soldier’s natural inclination to run away was thus nullified by the protection offered; and, progressively, they turned into battle proven troops. No relief of troops could be sent, as the Ivorian Army was over-extended. Only a platoon of firemen was sent as reinforcements.
The rebels used to attack mostly at night, most often just before dawn and sometimes during the day. This was wearing down the men, who could not sleep, increasing their sensitivity to malaria and dysentery. In the beginning the rebels managed to get close, even inside the town, moving between strong points. But soon the defenses became impenetrable and the six 82 mm mortars, having found their marks, exacted an enormous toll on the rebels. They were commanded by Big Jim, a very experienced Englishman, and Gary, a mad Australian, and were the most efficient weapons during the defense of the town.
As the rebels could not get past Blolequin towards their ultimate objective of San Pedro, they tried to get around. And in mid-December a large rebel force left Man towards Duékoué. Hopefully, the French Foreign Legion moved from their most westward position on the Sassandra bridge to block their advance north of Duekoue, taking nine casualties in the fighting, but establishing a new defense line in Fengolo. The rebels tried to get past again a week later, wounding two more French soldiers, but were repulsed.
On 26/12 Jean-Pierre and Lamarck, down with malaria, had to be medevaced and Sanders flew in to take command on the ground.
Meanwhile, some Liberian refugees of the Kran/Guere tribe, had offered their help to fight the Liberian supported Yacouba rebels. They were equipped with uniforms and weapons by the Ivorian Government and started working closely with the FS. They were the black mercenaries; many were battle-proven troops like Cne Arthur who had been an officer in the Liberian National Army under President Samuel Doe. They were sent to operate behind the lines in search and destroy missions, thus relieving at last the pressure on Blolequin. The last attack came on the morning of the 1st of January, funny way to wish happy New Year ! The rebels left five dead on the ground, one shot at less than twenty yards from an advanced post. From that date, the initiative would be definitely on the loyalists’ side. Of first necessity was to move back to their villages the refugees who had been flooding the town, with the resultant problems of hygiene and disease. They had been fleeing the Yacoubas who had been burning the villages and slaughtering the men, women and children, chopping off arms and legs in the “short sleeves-long sleeves” fashion. The villagers were armed with weapons taken from the rebels and rapidly formed into local militias. They had to learn to defend themselves. The FS and its Liberians allies started moving aggressively, searching and destroying the rebel units. The second priority was the reopening of the east road to Guiglo. On 4/01 the first convoy could reach Blolequin and no further ambush was to be deplored. The FS started to stockpile food and ammunition to get ready to attack again.
THE ROAD TO TOULEPLEU
On 10 January, Sanders launched an offensive on the west road towards Toulepleu. Blolequin being still threatened by some rebels concentrations in the north, only a small force would take part in the offensive: Sanders and three volunteers leading twenty FS troops and three hundred Liberian irregulars commanded by Cne Arthur Baigbo. Arthur would be killed seven months later in the fighting for Monrovia. The FS was armed with one 82 mm and one 60 mm mortar, two 12.7 Douchka machineguns, and supported by the BMP and the 20 mm canon with Ivorian crews; overwhelming firepower making up for the lack of manpower. Out of the Liberian contingent, about half were in some kind of uniforms and armed, the other half was made up of young recruits carrying sticks and machetes. They all wore a white armband as a distinctive sign. When one of the soldiers was killed or badly wounded, his weapon was passed on to the first youth in line. The same was done with the weapons taken from the enemy. These youths got their badges in battle.
Very quickly, the FS and its allies came upon a force of one hundred rebels, visibly getting ready to attack Blolequin. Taken by surprise, they took to their heels after a short firefight leaving five dead behind. The chase carried the men to the village of Doke, fifteen km down the road were they established an all-round defense for the night. The rebels attacked feebly during the night and were repulsed with another two casualties on their side. The offensive was renewed the next day. The rebels had entrenched themselves near the village of Tahibli. The fighting was ferocious with twenty rebels dead, plus uncounted dead and wounded who had disappeared in the forest, against six casualties on the Government’s side. Once more the heavier firepower had won the day, especially the 82 mm mortar which was used as far forward as possible by Jim and Gary and their surprising female team, more like a glorified 60 mm; that gave the best results in the forest. The village was soon cleared and the troops got ready for the night expecting an attack. It came just before dawn and serious casualties were again inflicted to the rebels. On 12 January, the FS and its allies came to the bridge on the Cavaly river, which they crossed unopposed, as the rebels had scattered in the forest after Tahibli and did not regroup until they had reached Toulepleu.
According to the intelligence gathered, a force of three hundred MPCI rebels, freed by the Lome cease-fire, had come to Toulepleu from Seguela, to reinforce the estimated six hundred MPIGO rebels concentrated there. The FS expected a tough fight. On 13 January, Sanders launched the assault on Toulepleu. Against all expectations, the town fell quickly after a intense but brief combat, the combined firepower and the accuracy of the mortars, the BMP 73 mm canon, the 20 mm canon and the Douchkas sending the rebels in a free-for-all flight towards Danane leaving behind twenty dead, and some weapons and vehicles.
The rebels were now in a spirit of defeat. But the mercenaries and their Ivorian and Liberian men needed to dig in for a while, to rest, to get supplies. No relief forces were available immediately. Sanders had to stop the offensive.
The next day, the MPIGO, visibly badly shaken, agreed to send representatives to Lome to sign the cease-fire, the last rebel force to do so. This victory sounded the end of the adventure for the soldiers of fortune. On 17 January, bowing to pressure exerted by the French Minister of Foreign Affairs Dominique de Villepin, who was eager to get all rebel groups to France for the Marcoussis Peace Talks, President Gbagbo, thanking them for the work done, terminated the contract of the mercenaries. This was the last of Colonel Denard’s initiated operations and one of the most successful.
© Copyright Francois Sanders 2009 All rights reserved.