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Archive - Thursday, 1 March 2001
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High-risk hostage rescue in a hostile environment was the only real choice
OPERATION Barras was a textbook SAS task - high-risk hostage rescue in a hostile environment.
The West Side Boys, a barely disciplined band of anti-government brigands in Sierra Leone held six Royal Irish Rangers subject to death threats and mock execution. A military mission was the only option once negotiations with this loose but well-equipped militia of around 200 men, women and children broke down.
But the West Side Boys would be no pushover. With a reputation for savage fighting - often under the influence of drink or drugs - their familiarity with and experience in tough terrain made for a formidable, unpredictable opponent.
Whitehall's word to go came at the Prime Minister's command on Saturday, September 9 last year. Briefed by covert reconnaissance and other intelligence sources the Barras team was standing by for immediate airborne deployment to their target area - the villages of Geri Bana, Magbeni and Forodogu, set amid dense jungle and mangrove swamps, straddling Rokel Creek, a 300-yard wide river thick with mosquitoes.
As dawn broke on Monday, September 11, three Chinook helicopters carrying a 150-strong combined Parachute Regiment/SAS contingent flew out of Freetown, the Sierra Leonean capital, heading east into the interior.
Keeping close to the Creek's contours, the flight, with two 'gunship' Lynx escorts, had just enough light to follow its 15-minute course without being easily spotted. Timing arrival in the attack zone was crucial; rebels had threatened to kill the captives at the first sign of any release attempt.
Five former hostages had, however, been extensively debriefed to outline every possible detail about the West Side Boys' base, and those aboard the helicopters knew exactly what was expected of them, having simulated combat scenarios for more than a week, first in Britain, then Senegal.
They knew that the hostages had been taken by boat from Magbeni to mud huts in a former plantation at Geri Bana, the brigands' HQ on the north bank of the Rokel. Guard numbers, where they slept and their leader's accommodation had also been ascertained.
Catching the self-styled West Side Boys 'Brigadier' Foday Kallay was an objective second only to the hostage rescue. There was also the matter of some 60-militia dug into surrounding defences.
Barras swooped with maximum surprise at 6.40am. The Chinooks set down on either bank for Paras to put up covering fire as one SAS team secured the hostages while a second snatched the sleeping Kallay.
But the West Side Boys battled back with Trooper Brad Tinnion badly wounded in the ensuing firefight. Airlifted out with the unharmed hostages, he died on arrival at a hospital ship in Freetown Harbour.
The first phase of Barras was over in only 20 minutes. Ferocious resistance, however, continued during the day as troops swept through the surrounding jungle.
By cease-fire 25 West Side Boys were dead with a further 18, including Kallay, captured. Among the rescuers was one loss, another seriously wounded and 11 'minor' wounds.
The then Chief of Defence Staff General Sir Charles Guthrie, a former SAS officer, spoke of Barras as being 'one of the most complicated operations I have ever been involved in'.
"We were not playing some stupid arcade game, the West Side Boys were not a pushover. They fought very hard. We did not want to do this but the clock started turning."
Countdown to Barras
FRIDAY, August 25, 2000.
ELEVEN members of the Royal Irish Regiment and a Sierra Leonean liaison officer taken hostage by rebel militia the West Side Boys after driving into their base in the Occra Hills.
Handling team of Ministry of Defence (MoD), Foreign Office, Downing Street, Cabinet Office and intelligence services set up to brief the Prime Minister on a daily basis.
Sunday, August 27, 2000.
SAS assessment team together with MoD and Metropolitan Police hostage negotiators fly to Freetown as part of a two-pronged strategy aiming first at talks with the West Side Boys and, if necessary, mounting a rescue mission.
West Side Boys make first their first demands: food, medicine and the release of a captured leader.
Wednesday, August 30, 2000.
Five soldiers released in return for a satellite phone, food and medicine. West Side Boys' commander, self-styled Brigadier Foday Kallay, uses the satellite phone to demand that the elected Sierra Leonean government steps down in place of his political allies.
SAS assessment team returns to Britain and begins training a 130-strong company from 1st Battalion The Parachute Regiment for a military option - Operation Barras.
6 BRADLEY 'Brad' Tinnion was just a few weeks away from becoming a father when killed in action. His partner later gave birth to a baby girl.
6 The couple had a home in Sutton St Nicholas, but Tpr Tinnion hailed from Harrogate, Yorkshire.
6 Enlisting in the Royal Artillery aged 16; he became a Bombardier, the artillery equivalent of Corporal, but took the rank Trooper on transferring to the SAS.
6 Tpr Tinnion is buried in the SAS cemetery at St Martin's Church, Hereford. Around 600 mourners from all over the country attended the full military funeral.
6 Brad Tinnion's death was the third blow to D Squadron 22 SAS, within a month.
Corporal Martin Halls and Trooper Adrian Powell died together during a road crash on exercise in Kenya that August.