1976 Loyada Hostage Rescue Mission

In early February 1976, two French Foreign Legion units were involved in an important hostage rescue mission in Loayada, a small village situated at the border between today’s 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 conducted such an exceptional anti-terrorist mission for the very first time, the legionnaires did well.

1976 Loyada Hostage Rescue Mission - TFAI - Somaliland - Djibouti

 

Prelude to the mission

In 1896, France officially established French Somaliland. The territory was an important, strategic place in the Horn of Africa, a gate to the Red Sea with the Suez Canal. 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). Their proclaimed goal was to liberate French Somaliland and connect it to Somalia. The organization was sponsored by the new Somali government.

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, the capital of TFAI). Between 1974-75, violent demonstrations for independence occurred in the TFAI. They were organized by the FLCS militants. In 1975, the same organization kidnapped a French ambassador in Somalia to be exchanged later for two imprisoned FLCS militants.

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

 

3rd February 1976: 31 French children kidnapped

In the morning of the 3rd February 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, the capital of TFAI. On board with him, 31 children of French servicemen serving there.

– 07.15 AM (07:15), 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
– located some 11 miles (18 km) south-east of Djibouti
– the only official border crossing with Somalia

The militants with the hijacked bus had to pass a checkpoint on the 14-km-long (9 miles) barbed wire barrier surrounding the whole capital (since 1966). The checkpoint was ocuppied 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 AM (07:45), the bus arrived at Loyada
– there, the militants were confronted by legionnaires
– from the 13th Demi-Brigade of the Foreign Legion (13e DBLE)
– a unit stationed in the TFAI since 1962
– the legionnaires operated a checkpoint there
– the militants and legionnaires negotiated
– then an order arrived from French officials
– the bus was allowed to park in no man’s land
– between the French and Somali territory
– only a few dozens of meters 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 rule over the TFAI
  • if not, they will kill all the children

 

Loyada Rescue Mission - Foreign Legion etrangere - 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 - Autocar - Loyada - 1976
One of the French green military buses carrying children between the French military air base and Djibouti in February 1976.

 

Legionnaires + GIGN alerted

The French officials reacted quickly. French Foreign legionnaires stationed in the TFAI were put on alert. This goes for the 13e DBLE, a unit permanently garrisoned in the TFAI at the time.

Besides the 13e DBLE, also the 13e DBLE’s company team (called Rotational Company) being formed with a combat company of the well-known 2nd Foreign Parachute Regiment (2e REP), rotating every four months. At the time, it was the 2nd Company, 2e REP, led by Captain Soubirou and having been deployed to the TFAI since December 1975.

Moreover, the GIGN (National Gendarmerie Intervention Group) was alerted in France. A counter-terrorist elite police tactical unit nowadays, the GIGN in 1976 was a relatively small unit. It was activated in 1974 to be specialized in sensitive hostage situations. For the unit, the Loyada mission was their very first operation conducted outside France. The GIGN received an order to depart to the TFAI immediately.

In the evening, another Foreign Legion unit was alerted. The Foreign Legion Task Force (GOLE), a battalion-seized intervention force organized in Corsica in 1971. In 1972, the force became part of the reactivated 2e RE (future 2e REI). The GOLE received an order to deploy to the TFAI.

 

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

 

Legionnaires: Arriving at Loyada and preparation

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

The paratroopers from the 2nd Company, 2e REP entrenched themselves in a palm grove situated some 270 yards (250 m) from the bus. The two 13e DBLE snipers were placed in an outpost of the local Autonomous Nomad Group (Groupement Nomade Autonome, GNA), a pro-French police unit consisting of local volunteers and French leaders. A group of 2e REP legionnaires were placed 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 waited some 550 yards (500 m) behind the GNA outpost.

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

 

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

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

 

4th February 1976: Rescue mission

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

A team of snipers from the GIGN, arriving in the TFAI in the early morning, joined the mission. The team consisted of nine men – eight snipers led by Lieutenant Prouteau (the creator of the GIGN unit and its first commander). The GIGN snipers positioned themselves some 90 yards (80 m) in front of the 2e REP legionnaires.

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

Somali Army troops took a position behind the barbed wire on the Somali side of the border. They were equipped with weapons, including machine guns, aimed at French positions. An unspecified number of FLCS militants were also present on the Somali side of the border.

 

Loyada Rescue Mission - Djibouti - TFAI - GIGN - Loyada - 1976 - Lieutenant Prouteau
Lieutenant Christian Prouteau (center), the creator 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, allowed to operate anywhere on the planet. They trained many Western special units, including the future U.S. Delta Force. They also launched the technique of fast-roping from a helicopter.

 

4th February 1976: Rescue operation

The French waited for a moment, when all militants in the bus would be up and visible. Then a GIGN team could shoot them without the danger of revenge on children. However, the militants in the bus were reinforced at night.

– 03.45 PM (15:45) – an order to rescue the children
– GIGN snipers shot a co-ordinated fire to eliminate the kidnappers
– in response to that, Somali machine guns opened fire
– that was the signal for Legion paratroopers
– 2e REP legionnaires launched a frontal attack
– the legionnaires run forward under fire
– simultaneously, 13e DBLE AMLs darted forward
– both units were designated to eliminate the Somali gunfire
– two 2e REP groups sized the border, one group sized the bus
– the Somali machine guns were eliminated by 13e DBLE AMLs fire
– the GM platoon moved to the GNA outpost to be waiting there
– 04.05 PM (16:05) – the rescue operation was finished

 

Loyada Rescue Mission - Djibouti - TFAI - Foreign Legion etrangere - Loyada - 1976
A map of the rescue mission conducted at Loyada, as published in a Képi blanc, the Legion’s magazine. Right, the Somali border with a Somali border outpost in the middle. In front of the outpost, the hijacked bus (marked as CAR) with the kidnapped children. The black half-rounds are Somali forces positions. Point A: position of the GIGN snipers. Behind them, the palm grove with 2e REP legionnaires + operational HQ of General Brasart. Note the 3 waves of the 2e REP attack. On the left, the GNA outpost with 13e DBLE snipers and a 2e REP group placed there. Several hundreds meters behind, the AMLs of 13e DBLE and GM. During the attack, the 13e DBLE AMLs neutralized the Somali gunfire, while the GM platoon moved to the GNA outpost.

 

1976 Loyada Rescue mission: Results

All militants kidnapping the childern were killed. Other militants reinforcing them at night + at least one Somali troop opening fire at French positions and at legionnaires freeing the children in the bus were eliminated too. However, a small girl was killed by a gun burst and five children were wounded. Two of them seriously. A boy was missed.

Results:

– 7 Somali FLCS militants killed

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

– 20 Somali troops and militants (on the Somali side) wounded

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

– 5 childern were wounded (2 of them seriously)

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

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

– 1 boy (Frank Rutkowski, aged 7) was kidnapped to Somalia
– he was released a few days later

Valérie Geissbuhler (aged ??) was among those two seriously wounded kids

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

 

Loyada Rescue Mission - Djibouti - TFAI - Foreign Legion etrangere - Loyada - 1976 - Bus
The hijacked bus after the rescue operation.
2e REP - Loyada Rescue Mission - Foreign Legion etrangere - 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).
Loyada Rescue Mission - Foreign Legion etrangere - Djibouti - TFAI - Valérie Geissbuhler
The grave of the poor Valérie Geissbuhler, one of the two 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.
2e REP - Loyada Rescue Mission - Foreign Legion etrangere - 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 such serious anti-terrorist mission for both, GIGN and legionnaires. Despite the fact, the gendarmes and legionnaires did well and the mission is seen as successful.

The wounded children were transported to France to the hospital in Paris.

The wounded Lieutenant Doucet was also sent to Paris to be hospitalized there.

In Corsica, the depart of the GOLE (planned on February 4) was postponed. The legionnaires left Corsica the next day, on February 5. Unfortunately, an accident happened to them in the TFAI in May 1976: 1976 Djibouti helicopter crash, forgotten in France nowadays.

For next weeks, the 13e DBLE legionnaires were protecting the military buses carrying French children to the 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 being never recognized officially as victims of terrorism.

 

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 - Frank Rutkowski
Frank Rutkowski. 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 etrangere - 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 etrangere - Djibouti - TFAI - 1976 - Departure
Captain Soubirou and his 2nd Company, 2e REP leaving TFAI/Djibouti in April 1976.

 
 

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Main information & images source:
Képi blanc magazines
GIGN History (FR)
ITN Source (EN)
wikipedia.org

 

 

Related articles:
1976 Djibouti helicopter crash
Mont Garbi Accident 1982
History: 2nd Foreign Parachute Regiment

 

 

The page was updated on: January 22, 2019

 

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