1976 Loyada Hostage Rescue Mission

In early February 1976, two French Foreign Legion units were involved in an important hostage rescue mission in Loyada, a small village located at the border between modern-day Djibouti and Somalia, in the Horn of Africa. Their objective was to save 31 French children kidnapped by local militants from a Pan-Somali guerrilla organization supported by the Somali government. Although the Foreign Legion was conducting such an exceptional anti-terrorist mission for the very first time, the legionnaires did well.

La version française de cet article: Prise d’otages de Loyada en 1976

 
1976 Loyada Hostage Rescue Mission - TFAI - Somaliland - Djibouti

 
 

Prelude to the mission

In the Horn of Africa in 1896, France officially established French Somaliland. The small territory was an important, strategic place known as a gate to the Red Sea with the Suez Canal, the latter connecting the Mediterranean Sea with the Indian Ocean. In 1960, neighboring Somalia (then a British colony) gained its independence. The new state laid claim to French Somaliland. Three years later, in 1963, a new guerrilla organization was created: Somali Coast Liberation Front (FLCS). Sponsored by the new Somali government, their proclaimed goal was to liberate the small French territory and connect it to Somalia.

In 1967, French Somaliland was officially renamed the French Territory of Afars and Issas (TFAI). Three years later, in 1970, the FLCS launched its first terrorist attack (bombing a bar in Djibouti City, the capital of the TFAI). Between 1974 and 1975, violent demonstrations for independence occurred in the country, organized by the FLCS militants. In 1975, the same organization kidnapped a French ambassador in Somalia to be exchanged later for two imprisoned FLCS members.

On December 31, 1975, pre-negotiations regarding the independence of the TFAI were held in Paris between French and TFAI officials. On January 30, 1976, TFAI officials made a formal complaint to the Organization of African Unity against Somalia. They asked Somali government to change their “negative and obstructionist” attitude towards the TFAI.

 
Africa - Djibouti - TFAI - Map

 
 

February 3, 1976: 31 French children kidnapped

In the morning of February 3, 1976, a military bus driven by 19-year-old soldier Jean-Michel Dupont left Air Base 188, a French military air base situated within the Ambouli International Airport of Djibouti City, the capital of TFAI. On board with him were 31 children, between 5 and 12 years old, of French servicemen from the base.

At 07:15 a.m. (07h15), the bus was attacked and hijacked by four armed FLCS militants dressed up as women. They ordered the bus driver to go to Loyada, a small village located on the TFAI-Somalia border, about 11 miles (18 km) southeast of Djibouti. Loyada was the only official border crossing with Somalia at the time.

The militants with the hijacked bus had to pass a checkpoint on the 9-mile-long (14 km) barbed wire barrier which had surrounded the whole capital since 1966 riots. The checkpoint was occupied by a platoon of the French Motorized Gendarmerie (GM), led by Adjudant Viard. The kidnappers fired at the gendarmes. The platoon informed their officers about the incident and pursued the bus.

Around 07:45 a.m. (07h45), the bus arrived at Loyada. There, the militants were confronted by legionnaires from the 13th Foreign Legion Half-Brigade (13e DBLE), a unit permanently stationed in the TFAI since 1962. The legionnaires were operating a checkpoint there. They negotiated with the militants until an order arrived from French officials – the bus was allowed to park in no man’s land, between the French and Somali territories, only a few dozen yards from the Somali border outpost.

The demands of the FLCS militants were: to free all imprisoned FLCS members; to annul a planned referendum in the TFAI; to end the French ruling over the TFAI. If refused, the militants were ready to kill all the kidnapped children.

 

Loyada Rescue Mission - Foreign Legion - Djibouti - TFAI - 2e REP - Loyada - 1976 - Map
A map of the TFAI/Djibouti, with the border village of Loyada. A hijacked bus with 31 children moved there on February 3, 1976.

Djibouti - TFAI - Bus - Loyada - 1976
One of the French green military buses carrying children between the French military air base and Djibouti in February 1976.

 
 

Legionnaires and GIGN alerted

Besides the already mentioned 13e DBLE, we could find in the TFAI in early 1976 also a company of the well-known 2nd Foreign Parachute Regiment (2e REP) from Corsica, France. Since October 1974, this regiment had been deploying on a regular basis one of its five combat companies to the TFAI to reinforce the 13e DBLE and help their comrades with carrying out military tasks in the region. When in the TFAI, 2e REP companies were administratively attached to the 13e DBLE and became temporarily its company team (named Rotational Company). Each 2e REP company being deployed to the Horn of Africa at the time stayed there for about six months.

In February 1976, it was Captain Soubirou and his 2nd Company, 2e REP who constituted the 13e DBLE’s Rotational Company. The unit had been deployed to the TFAI since December 1975.

On February 3, French officials reacted quickly and all French Foreign legionnaires stationed in the TFAI were put on alert.

Furthermore, the GIGN (National Gendarmerie Intervention Group) was alerted in France. Though nowadays an elite counter-terrorist police tactical unit, the GIGN in 1976 was relatively small. It was activated in 1974 to specialize in sensitive hostage situations. The Loyada mission was in fact the unit’s very first operation conducted outside of France. The GIGN received an order to deploy immediately to the TFAI.

Finally, in the evening, another Foreign Legion unit was alerted: the GOLE (Foreign Legion Task Force), a battalion-sized intervention force organized in Corsica in 1971. A year later, the force became part of the reactivated 2e RE (future 2e REI). The GOLE also received an order to be ready to deploy to the TFAI.

 

2e REP - Foreign Legion - TFAI - Djibouti - 1975
2nd Company, 2e REP during an exercise in the TFAI in December 1975. A few weeks later, the men were involved in the hostage rescue mission at Loyada.

 
 

Legionnaires: Arrival at Loyada

The 2nd Company, 2e REP left the capital for Loyada. In the afternoon, the company was reinforced by the Reconnaissance Squadron (ER) of the 13e DBLE, equipped with Panhard AML armored cars. Two snipers from the 1st Company, 13e DBLE completed the legionnaires present on the spot.

The paratroopers from the 2nd Company, 2e REP entrenched themselves in a palm grove located some 270 yards (250 m) from the bus. The 2e REP and 13e DBLE snipers were set in an outpost of the local Autonomous Nomad Group (Groupement Nomade Autonome, GNA), a pro-French police unit consisting of local auxiliaries and French leaders. A group of 2e REP legionnaires was set next to the outpost.

The GNA outpost was located at the same distance from the bus as the palm grove. The 13e DBLE squadron and their AMLs were waiting about 550 yards (500 m) behind it.

In the afternoon, a female social assistant serving with 13e DBLE legionnaires at their military base joined voluntarily the children in the bus.

 

Loyada Rescue Mission - Foreign Legion - Djibouti - TFAI - 2e REP - Loyada - 1976
A 2e REP legionnaire in the palm grove looking at the hijacked bus (extreme right).

Loyada Rescue Mission - Foreign Legion - Djibouti - TFAI - GNA post - 1976
The GNA outpost at Loyada, with 2e REP and 13e DBLE snipers.

 
 

Preparation

General Pierre Brasart took command of the rescue mission. A former airborne commando, General Brasart served as the Chief of the TFAI French Armed Forces at that time. He established his HQ in the same palm grove as was the position of the 2nd Company, 2e REP.

A team of snipers from the GIGN, arriving in the TFAI in the early morning of February 4, joined the mission. The team consisted of nine men: eight snipers led by Lieutenant Prouteau, the founder of the GIGN unit and its first commander. The GIGN snipers were equipped with FR F1 rifles. They positioned themselves about 90 yards (80 m) in front of the 2e REP legionnaires.

Having been stationed at Loyada since the morning of February 3, the platoon of the Motorized Gendarmerie (GM) led by Adjudant Viard completed the present French forces. Equipped with the same AMLs as the 13e DBLE squadron, the motorized gendarmes stayed behind the GNA outpost, some 900 yards (800 m) away from the bus.

Somali Army troops positioned themselves behind the barbed wire on the Somali side of the border. Their weapons, including machine guns, were aimed at French positions. An unspecified number of FLCS militants were also present at the Somali border. Some of them would reinforce the militants in the bus during the night.

 

Loyada Rescue Mission - Djibouti - TFAI - GIGN - Loyada - 1976 - Lieutenant Prouteau
Lieutenant Christian Prouteau (center), the founder and commander of the GIGN, with two of his men in February 1976. The Loyada mission was the unit’s first operation conducted outside of France. A small unit at the time, the GIGN is one of the most experienced counter-terrorism units in the world today, and is allowed to operate anywhere on the planet. They trained many Western special units, including the future U.S. Delta Force. They also pioneered the technique of fast-roping from a helicopter.

 
 

February 4, 1976: Rescue operation

The French waited for a moment for all militants in the bus to be up and visible. Then a GIGN team could shoot them without the risk of inciting them to take revenge on the children.

At 03:45 p.m. (15h45), an order was given to rescue the children. GIGN snipers fired coordinated shots to kill the kidnappers. In response, the Somali guns opened fire. This was the signal for the paratroopers. The 2e REP legionnaires launched a frontal attack and ran forward under enemy fire. They were designated to ensure the rescue of the children and to eliminate the Somali gunfire.

Lieutenant Doucet‘s 1st Platoon ran into a grove on the Somali side from which an MG 42 fired. But the lieutenant in the lead was wounded and thus, it was Staff Sergeant Raoul who would continue the assault with energy. Right next to them, in the center, the 2nd Platoon with Staff Sergeant Jorand was running to storm the bus with the children, supported from the GNA post by Legion snipers of Lieutenant Andrieu. Corporals Larking and Lemoine entered the vehicle and quickly neutralized two militants who had escaped the GIGN fire.

Simultaneously, 13e DBLE AMLs darted forward to help the 2e REP men to eliminate the Somali fire. The GM platoon moved to the GNA outpost to be ready there as a reserve unit. At 04:05 p.m. (16h05), the rescue operation was over.

 

Loyada Rescue Mission - Djibouti - TFAI - Foreign Legion - Loyada - 1976
A sketch of the rescue mission conducted at Loyada, as published in Képi Blanc, the Legion’s magazine. On the right, the Somali border with a Somali border outpost in the middle. In front of the outpost, the hijacked bus (marked as “CAR”) where the kidnapped children were detained. The black half-rounds are Somali forces’ positions. Point A: position of the GIGN snipers. Behind them, the palm grove with 2e REP legionnaires and General Brasart‘s operational HQ. Note the three waves of the 2e REP attack. On the left, the GNA outpost with 2e REP and 13e DBLE snipers set there. Several hundred meters behind, the AMLs of both the 13e DBLE and GM. During the attack, the 13e DBLE AMLs eliminated the Somali gunfire, while the GM platoon moved to the GNA outpost.

 
 

1976 Loyada Rescue mission: Results

All militants who were responsible for kidnapping the children were killed. Other FLCS militants as well as at least one Somali troop which had opened fire at legionnaires and French positions were neutralized too. Unfortunately, a little girl was killed by a gun burst. Five children were wounded, two of them seriously. A boy went missing. It was later discovered that he had been kidnapped by militants to Somalia.

 

Results:

– 7 Somali FLCS militants were killed

 
– a Somali soldier was killed (according to a French official statement)
– Somali officials later stated that 6 Somali servicemen were killed during the attack

 
– 20 FLCS militants and Somali troops were wounded

 
– a girl was killed (Nadine Durand, aged 5)
– she was killed by a militant’s gun burst while running to the driver

 
– 5 children were wounded, two of them seriously (Valérie Geissbuhler and David Brisson)

 
– the driver and the female assistant were also wounded
– the driver was shot by the same gun burst as the little girl
– his left leg was nearly cut off
– he never recovered and became disabled

 
Lieutenant Doucet was seriously wounded
– the then commander of 1st Platoon, 2nd Company, 2e REP

 
– a boy was kidnapped to Somalia
Franck Rutkovsky (also sometimes Franck Rutkowski), aged 7
– he was released a few days later

 
Valérie Geissbuhler (aged 7) was among the two seriously wounded kids

  • this little girl was the granddaughter of a former legionnaire
  • she was quickly sent to the hospital in Paris, France
  • nevertheless, she died from her injuries a few days later
  • Valérie became the second victim of the kidnapping
  • on February 13, she was buried in Aubagne, southern France
  • the main garrison town of the Foreign Legion

 

David Brisson (aged 6) was the second seriously wounded kid

  • the poor little boy lost his left eye and part of his face
  • because of the visible permanent damage, he committed suicide in 2014
  • he became the third and last victim of the kidnapping

 

Loyada Rescue Mission - Djibouti - TFAI - Foreign Legion - Loyada - 1976 - Bus
The hijacked bus after the rescue operation.
2e REP - Loyada Rescue Mission - Foreign Legion - Djibouti - TFAI - Lieutenant Doucet
Lieutenant Doucet, the wounded leader of the 1st Platoon, 2nd Company, 2e REP after his arrival in France (February 10, 1976).
2e REP - Loyada Rescue Mission - Foreign Legion - Djibouti - TFAI - captured weapons
Some of the weapons captured by legionnaires during the Loyada operation. Between them an MG 42 machine gun.

 
 

1976 Loyada Rescue mission: Aftermath

The 1976 Loyada rescue mission was the first serious anti-terrorist mission of the sort for both the GIGN and legionnaires. Despite that, the gendarmes and legionnaires did well and the mission is perceived as successful.

The wounded children were transported to the hospital in Paris.

The wounded Lieutenant Doucet was also sent to Paris to be hospitalized. At Camp Raffalli on 30 April 1976, he and Jehanne Bru, the courageous female assistant, were awarded with the Legion d’Honneur. Five years later, in 1981, Captain Doucet would be back in Djibouti, at the head of the 13e DBLE’s CECAP Commando training center.

In Corsica, the departure of the GOLE (originally planned on February 4) was postponed. The legionnaires left Corsica the next day, on February 5. Unfortunately, six of them would become victims of an accident that occurred in the TFAI in May: the 1976 Djibouti helicopter crash, largely forgotten in France nowadays.

Over the next several weeks, the 13e DBLE legionnaires were protecting the military buses carrying French children to school in Djibouti.

In 2016, the kidnapped children founded an association called The Forgotten of Loyada (Les oubliés de Loyada). They blame French officials for never being officially recognized as victims of terrorism.

The same year, a detailed book called Les enfants de Loyada (The children of Loyada) was published, to commemorate an already forgotten event.

In 2019, a French-Belgian film was released, 15 Minutes of War (L’intervention in France), which is said to be inspired by the sad event. However, it is a poor Hollywood-style fiction having nothing to do with the reality.

 

Loyada Rescue Mission - Djibouti - TFAI - 1976 - Loyada - Bus
The interior of the hijacked bus after the rescue operation in February 1976, examined by curious locals.

Loyada Rescue Mission - Somalia - Mogadishu - 1976 - Franck Rutkovsky
Franck Rutkovsky. During the rescue operation at Loyada, the boy was kidnapped to Somalia for about a week. Here in Mogadishu (the capital), he is ready to be released by his armed kidnappers from the FLCS, supported by Somali troops from behind.
13e DBLE - Foreign Legion - Djibouti - TFAI - 1976 - Bus security
An armed 13e DBLE legionnaire providing security to a military bus with children in February 1976, after the sad incident at Loyada.
2e REP - Loyada Rescue Mission - Foreign Legion - Djibouti - TFAI - 1976 - Departure
Captain Soubirou and his 2nd Company, 2e REP leaving TFAI/Djibouti in April 1976.
Loyada Rescue Mission - Foreign Legion - Djibouti - TFAI - Valérie Geissbuhler
The grave of the poor Valérie Geissbuhler, one of the two direct victims of the incident at Loyada in early February 1976. As a granddaughter of a former legionnaire, she was burried at Aubagne, the main garrison town of the Legion.
Loyada Rescue Mission - Valérie Geissbuhler - Hans Geissbuhler - 2019
Hans Geissbuhler, son of an NCO of the Foreign Legion, with a photo of his daughter Valérie, late 2019.
Loyada Rescue Mission - Valérie Geissbuhler - grave in Aubagne - 2020
The grave of Valérie Geissbuhler at the cemetery of the Legion in Aubagne, mid-2020.

 
 
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Main information & images source:
Képi blanc magazines
Jean-Claude Saulnier: Une vie de légionnaire: De Kolwezi à l’Afghanistan avec le 2e REP (Nimrod, 2013)
GIGN History (FR)
ITN Source (EN)
wikipedia.org

 

 

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More from the history of the Foreign Legion:
1863 Battle of Camerone
1908 Forthassa Disaster
Foreign Legion in the Balkans: 1915-1919
1932 Turenne Rail Accident
1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu
1976 Djibouti helicopter crash
1978 Battle of Kolwezi
1982 Mont Garbi Accident

 

 

The page was updated on: February 04, 2021

 

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