DARU, Sierra Leone (AP) — Helicopters on Sunday ferried 170 U.N. peacekeepers to safety as other troops retreated on foot, ending a dramatic rescue mission two months after the soldiers were surrounded and cut off by Sierra Leonean rebels, U.N. officials said.
The air evacuation from the eastern town of Pendembu to nearby U.N.-controlled Daru was complicated by gunfire from the rebels, who have repeatedly embarrassed the U.N. force with attacks and kidnappings.
Later a convoy of U.N. soldiers who assisted in the rescue, along with a few of the freed troops, returned safely to Daru by inching back on a muddy, pitted road after protecting the helicopter landings Sunday, U.N. officials said.
"Yes it is over," U.N. spokeswoman Hirut Befecadu said. "Everyone is safe."
The two-day operation, codenamed "Khukrii," after a sharp Indian knife, began Saturday morning when a team of Ghanaian, Indian and Nigerian troops supported by British and Indian helicopter gunships helped 222 Indian peacekeepers and 11 military observers break out of the rebel stronghold of Kailahun.
The troops' U.N. base had been under siege since early May. The peacekeepers were never disarmed by the rebels, but the renegades had recently begun preventing food and medicine convoys from reaching the detainees.
Maj. Haringer Sood, an Indian officer who was among the detainees, said the peacekeepers burst out of the base with guns ready, catching the Revolutionary United Front rebels by surprise in the surrounding jungle.
"When we started to break out it was a shock to the RUF surrounding us," Sood said. "They just did not know what had hit them . . . They saw us coming out all charged up and they just ran away."
Some rebels pursued and shot at the escaping peacekeepers, who fired back, Sood said. Sixteen vehicles stuffed with the peacekeepers' supplies and belongings formed a convoy, Sood added.
Despite sustained gunfire, most of the troops walked 20 miles down the muddy stretch of road to Pendembu, while 40 others — the observers and 29 injured and ill peacekeepers — were flown out Saturday. Kailahun is 200 miles east of Freetown near the Liberian border.
Near Pendembu, the freed peacekeepers linked up with another U.N. contingent which fought its way up from the south. The two groups spent the night in the town, and most of the freed detainees were flown to Daru by helicopter Sunday morning, while the relief column provided covering fire, Indian Maj. Anthanarayan Arun said.
"All that could be taken out (by air) were taken out," he said.
The rescue contingent was returning Sunday by road to Daru. A U.N. official said a number of
Indian military drivers, who had been among the detainees, were with the convoy.
The rescue came two months after the rebels reignited Sierra Leone's eight-year civil war by launching attacks and capturing 500 U.N. hostages. Those hostages were disarmed, and released after several weeks.
Over the course of the war, the rebels have killed and maimed tens of thousands of civilians in a bid to gain power through fear. They have abandoned three different peace accords.
Four peacekeepers were injured Saturday, but there were no known U.N. casualties in Sunday's fighting, Arun said.
The rebels suffered numerous casualties in Saturday's fighting, according to U.N. officials.
Daru, an impoverished farming town battered by years of fighting, provides a key defensive base for the United Nations.
"In a sense, Daru is home," Arun said. "It is as safe as any fortified military locality can be."
Maj. Gen. Vijay Jetley, the commander of Sierra Leone's U.N. force, known as UNAMSIL, praised the rescue mission as a success, adding that the peacekeepers planned further "robust" operations to secure Sierra Leone towns.
"We hope that by what has happened today, we have sent the right message to the right people that UNAMSIL is a robust force," Jetley said.
One of the freed observers, British army Maj. Andrew Harrison, said he was informed of the rescue mission a day in advance when he was sent a cryptic message by satellite phone disguised as a chess move.
"I felt it was time for action — and indeed swift and decisive action was taken," he said after arriving being flown Sunday evening to Britain.
During an initial period of captivity in May prior to joining besieged U.N. troops, Harrison said he was threatened both physically and verbally by the rebels but declined to reveal details. He praised the rescue operation as "extremely professional and extremely swift — it's of great credit to the people involved."