The MasterBlog: the Standard | Online Edition :: Operation Thunderbolt
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Sunday, July 4, 2010

the Standard | Online Edition :: Operation Thunderbolt

A flash from the past...

Kenyan investigative report from The Standard on the Entebbe raid of 1976, and how Kenya almost went to war with Idi Amin's Uganda.

Operation Thunderbolt

Published on 03/07/2010
By Patrick Mathangani
July 3, 1976. Four Israeli military passenger planes take off with 100 elite commandos and paratroopers on board.
The destination is Entebbe, Uganda, and the mission is to rescue 105 hostages held at the airport by Palestinian and German terrorists. Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine terrorists had hijacked an Air France flight a week before.
Two other Boeing planes also take off; one loaded with paramedics and medical supplies to attend to possible casualties. Its destination is Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Nairobi, where it would be used as a mobile hospital.
The other has communication equipment to use during the operation.
It is the peak of a week of careful military planning and intelligence gathering. There are several units on board, each with specific instructions.
To avoid radar detection over Egypt, Sudan and other countries along the route, the planes hover just over rooftops at about 100 feet above the ground.
They then enter Kenyan airspace, cruise over northern Kenya, across the Rift Valley and Nyanza provinces, and eventually swoop down over the calm waters of Lake Victoria.
The pilots have been picked carefully, and had spent several days practicing to land in darkness and without the assistance of air traffic control.
The one flying the lead aircraft is a former air force pilot who had also worked with Israel’s national carrier, El Ai, and had landed in Entebbe many times before.
Night mission
A few seconds after 11pm, the first plane touches down at Entebbe, undetected by Ugandan radar and unaided by traffic control.
Tense but focused, Major-General Doron Almog is on board, and even before taxiing, and commandos jet out one after the other.
"I was the first to land in Entebbe with 10 soldiers. Four ran along the runway and marked 600m with 14 special batteries, seven in each side of the runway every 100m. Six soldiers together with me captured the new control tower that was located on a hill 400m from the runway," Almog recalls.
The batteries were to provide backup to light the runway, just in case Uganda switched off power.
"The challenge had been to perform very accurate navigation in pitch dark night, in a place we had never been before, and subdue every Ugandan soldier along the way, and there were four," says Almog.
Crouching in the semi-darkness, Almog’s squad fires from silenced guns and eliminate the sentries. The plan is to eliminate any ‘obstacles’ without attracting attention, which could bungle the whole operation.
"The other challenge was to surprise the seven terrorists that were holding our hostages and kill them in the first seconds of the battle before they got a chance to eliminate the captives," he remembers.
Also with Almog is the assault squad of about 30 men, whose brief is to storm the hall holding the hostages. This unit is under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Netanyahu, a brother of Binyamin Netanyahu, who was later to become Israel’s prime minister.
This squad is handpicked from the elite Sayeret Matkal unit within the IDF. It is Israel’s best squad with exclusive training to handle dangerous hostage situations.
Another unit is charged with securing the planes, while another seizes the refuelling section and hurriedly starts filling up the tanks. Some of the Israeli soldiers had also been to Uganda in the early 1970s, where they had trained the Ugandan force they were now confronting.
Netanyahu and his unit wore the green camouflage Ugandan military uniforms to confuse the sentries. It worked perfectly.
"This was to create hesitation by Ugandans," Almog told The Standard on Saturday in a telephone interview.
As the planes carrying the jeeps and a Mercedes Benz limo lands, the cargo hatches slide open. The cars and armoured personnel vehicles are disembarked on quickly mounted ramps, and drive along the taxiing planes.
This creates the impression President Idi Amin, or some other dignitary, is arriving. However, the Mercedes is packed with soldiers with their fingers on the trigger.
The sentries are taken by surprise, and the terrorists inside have no idea what is going on. As one civilian plane taxies towards the old terminal where the hostages are being held, the Ugandans apparently think a negotiations team has arrived.
One air force captain tells his team: "Get ready to receive our visitors. They have arrived."
Suleman Dehiya, who was then a private in the air force, recalls these words from the captain, indicating the Ugandans were confused over Israel’s earlier offer to negotiate with the terrorists.
He was stationed at the air force hangar, some 150m from the old terminal.
Then, all hell breaks loose when one of the commandos fire loudly when he notices one of the sentries had not been eliminated. Moments later, a Ugandan sentry fatally shoots Netanyahu.
Almog recalls Netanyahu was shot outside the terminal building.
A fierce gun battle breaks out in which more than 20 Ugandan soldiers are killed, alongside three hostages. As bullets fly, several Israeli soldiers are injured.
Due to the confusion in the Ugandan camp, the air force, which was not part of the soldiers watching over the terminal, is never called to repulse the intruders.
The police air wing is also adjacent to the air force hangar, but nobody seems to know what is going on.
Last Moments
Moments later, Dehiya watches in terror as their 11 MIG jets go up in fierce balls of fire and smoke. Israeli troops have shot and destroyed them to incapacitate the Ugandan air force.
The Israeli’s used the armoured vehicle to shoot the jets, which required powerful weaponry to destroy.
"It was a big embarrassment," Dehiya says with regret of a subdued soldier dulling his face. "But we thought they were civilians. You could not attack civilians. There was commotion. Everyone was running for dear life."
All the while, another Boeing jet circles the airport overhead, providing communication for the squads. With the hostages safely on board, the vehicles are loaded onto the planes and off to Nairobi.
Little did Kenyan authorities know that this rescue would push it on to the brink of war with Uganda.
The Standard | Online Edition :: Operation Thunderbolt

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