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I am reminded of the days, more than a decade ago, when Indian Naval ships came to the rescue of the Indian Brigade during its deinduction from Somalia. Prior to that, a naval ship provided yeoman service towards the UN cause in war-torn Somalia on rotation basis.
As our time came to return to India after nearly 15 months, the Somali clans grew more and more belligerent throughout the mission area including Kismayu, the second largest coastal town of the country. It is located 240 km south-west of the largest town and capital-Mogadishu. The Indian battalion, 1 Bihar, was deployed there.
As the days for the final deinduction of the Indian Brigade drew nearer, units in the hinterland, to include the Brigade Headquarters, chalked out plans to hand over respective charge to the local Somali authorities. The plan was put into execution. While everything went about smoothly in the hinterland, the battalion at Kismayu was not so fortunate.
Intelligence reports received by the battalion at Kismayu indicated that some of the Somali clan members coerced 1 Bihar to leave all its weapons and equipment behind. In case this was not agreed to, the battalion would be wrenched by force. With this fresh input, our hopes for a smooth and early exit from Somalia grew dim.
It was a moment of pride, elation and relief to see their own, impressive and Indian made naval ships coming to assist them during the crucial deinduction.
What the Indian Brigade needed was a naval task force, but that seemed elusive since many Western countries were more inclined to 'wait and watch' the Somali situation rather than put their fleet at sea for the convenience of the Third World contingents. However, towards the end of November 1994, the Indian government decided to send Naval force to Somalia. Accordingly, on December 6, an Indian Naval task force reached the shores of Somalia off Kismayu. It comprised the Indian frigates INS Ganga and Godavari along wih the logistics support ship INS Shakti.
At the crack of dawn on December 6, hundreds of local residents, mainly gun-wielding youth, women and children thronged the silvery shores of Kismayu, many waving out to the ships shouting Hindiya, Hindiyan sheeps! ('Indian, Indian ships'.) As for the officers and men of the Indian Brigade, particularly those of 1 Bihar and an independent squadron of 7 Cavalry (comprising T-72 tanks) based at Kismayu, it was a moment of pride, elation and relief to see their own, impressive and Indian made naval ships, coming to assist them during the crucial deinduction.
Brig Mono Bhagat, Commander of the Indian Brigade, along with a few Brigade staff officers, flew to Kismayu from Mogadishu. We were airlifted by Indian Naval Sea King helicopters to INS Ganga. Once onboard, we called on the Task Force Commander, Admiral Ganesh and other senior Indian naval staff and commanding officers. This was followed by a coordination conference on high seas where modalities covering numerous operational aspects and support to be provided by the task force were discussed.
Accordingly, deinduction of troops from Kismayu started on the following day. The process went about peacefully and the crucial transition of Indian-held UN assets (excluding Indian weapons and equipment) between 1 Bihar and local Somalis was executed at the Kismayu airport and seaport.
To ensure the safety of Indian troops, the Indian naval fleet provided various types of intimate support such as aerial logistics and fire support from its integral helicopters, ship-to-shore standby fire-support and signal communications.
Around this time reports came in about militant groups, belonging to three different clans, planning to force their way towards the seaport from three different directions. Gunshots could be clearly heard from the direction of Kismayu town. We soon learnt through intercepted wireless communication that Somali clan members were looting the warehouse holding food grain, belonging to an NGO, at gunpoint.
At the Kismayu seaport there was no major cause for worry as earmarked Indian troops, supported by tanks of 7 Cavalry squadron, were already deployed at vantage positions. Effective roadblocks had also been set up to ensure a smooth deinduction of Indian troops without external interference. As the deinduction progressed, the tanks and bulk of Indian troops at various check-points were to fall back to the seaport for boarding various earmarked ships, leaving behind an effective rear guard of 40 personnel of 1 Bihar. Regular armed sorties of Indian Brigade's Chetak and Indian Naval Sea King helicopters also deterred the belligerent Somali armed factions from coming closer to the seaport. Simultaneously, the Indian naval ships had their guns and missiles trained onto different land objectives and their electronic warfare gadgets on board succeeded in not only jamming militant radio frequencies but also selectively monitored their command and control communication channels which provided invaluable information to the Indian forces.
However, the most striking aspect and the 'grand finale' of the entire Kismayu operation was the unique rear guard action performed jointly by the troops of 1 Bihar and the Indian naval task force. After ensuring that no interference took place by Somali clan members during deinduction, the 40-odd troops of 1 Bihar, forming the rear guard, converged at the strategic Hamburger Hill. This hill overlooked the Kismayu harbour from the north and also the main approach leading to it from Kismayu town. From here, they were lifted by Indian Naval Sea King helicopters and ferried into different ships of the task force.
This final tactical action was one of the most bold and dramatic ones ever to have been executed by Indian Navy. It was also the most difficult phase of deinduction carried out by the Indian Brigade in Somalia involving meticulous planning, coordination and execution.
...we succeeded in sending signals across Somalia and throughout the world that the Indians meant business in preserving the property and integrity of its brigade in Somalia during its deinduction.
Strategically, this particular operation was successful on two other counts. Firstly, we succeeded in sending signals across Somalia and throughout the world that the Indians meant business in preserving the property and integrity of its brigade in Somalia during its deinduction.
Secondly, it proved that India was capable of dealing with such contingencies. This was also the first instance in the history of the United Nations peacekeeping that a naval task force from any Third World country had been deployed for such a major task. Earlier this had always been the prerogative of the US or some of the Western nations.
On the night of December 11/12, the task force weighted anchor at Kismayu and arrived at Mogadishu by the afternoon from where it supported the deinduction of the bulk of Indian troops. By December 23, the final deinduction by air and sea became effective.
Till the time Indian ships came on the scene, the local residents were quite used to seeing the US and massive European naval ships plying off the shores of Somalia. This was the first time that they had seen such large battleships from a Third World country. They were further surprised to learn that the Indian battleships were made in India. The Indian naval ships in Somalia boosted India's image overseas considerably. As for the Indian Brigade in Somalia, the olive greens would remain truly indebted to their brethren in whites!