Saturday, October 10, 2009

Battle of Charlie checkpoint - Tuesday, November 10, 2009

In the early afternoon of August 21, 1979, a civilian vehicle approached the Qana checkpoint, manned by a Fijian sentry. The driver, who initially objected to a search, threatened retaliation when he was allowed to drive on after the customary inspection.

General Erskine said the man was possibly humiliated he had to submit to orders from foreigners as about 20 minutes later, the checkpoint came under intense automatic fire.

The fire fight lasted some three minutes and indications were the armed elements (AE) were members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a splinter group of the PLO.

Unconfirmed reports indicated that one of the armed elements was wounded. There were no injuries to Fijibatt or the attached Lebanese personnel.

At 7.30 that night, seven AEs approached the same checkpoint and were stopped by Fijibatt soldiers on duty. Procedures required the occupants of the vehicle to get out of the car and while five obeyed instructions, two refused. One of them had a pistol and refused to surrender the weapon.

A struggle followed as the AEs tried to snatch rifles off the Fijian sentry. Unable to overpower the Fijians, the armed AE drew his pistol and cocked it with the intention of firing. In self defence the Fijian sentry fired two rifle rounds, seriously wounding the AE in the chest and jaw. The injured AE was taken to Tyre Hospital while the rest were detained. Sometime later a PLO officer arrived to negotiate the release of the detainees.

But the battle was far from over. The next day it was discovered that the wounded man had died. Retaliation was expected as he was no ordinary AE. His name was Major Ibrahim al Kheisham, a 30-year-old senior commander of the Organisation of Communist Action of Lebanon.

Soon after news of the death got out, the Fijibatt HQ received reports at 9.30 am that an attack of the "C" Company checkpoint in the village of Al Bazuriah was imminent, from a wooded area about 200 meters away.

FijiBatt had a platoon-sized (30 men) checkpoint and Major Ratu Epeli Ganilau, the commanding officer for "C" Company was ordered to take command and reinforce platoons at the checkpoint. By 10.30am a fire-fight had developed and continued until mid-day.

However, while the "C" Company was still under pressure at checkpoint 1-21, AEs were sighted moving around the eastern flank of "B" Company's checkpoint 1-16, known to the Fijians as Charlie Checkpoint.

Mr Sanday said a major problem developed after the Fijibatt began defending their position.

"The first relates to the participation of the Dutch armoured re-inforcements in the Battle of Charlie Checkpoint."

"After the battle with the attackers had been "joined", opening fire against the AEs, Dutch reinforcements entered our area of operation. But they did not report to Fijibatt HQ for a briefing prior to being deployed. They drove past the FIJIbatt HQ and bowled straight up the road into the middle of a raging battle, ignoring the shot and shell that was going on around them."

On seeing the approach of the two armoured vehicles the Lebanese militants attacking the Fiji checkpoint turned their attention to the approaching Dutch reinforcements, firing at them with automatic weapons and rocket propelled grenades.

"The Dutch officer leading the Dutch vehicles took a bullet that passed through his body and shattered his spine. He slumped forward onto the turret of his armoured vehicle unable to move as bullets ricocheted around him."

"The attackers, numbering more than 60, approached the Dutch vehicles firing their assault weapons from the hip and spraying hot lead. They were shouting and cheering as they advanced pouring fire at the trapped Dutch soldiers."

For their part, the Dutch soldiers withdrew into the safety of their armoured vehicles and were in a very vulnerable position. A Dutch armoured ambulance with a red cross painted on the side of the vehicle also started to come under fire.

"There was no respect for the Geneva Convention in this part of the world."

"The situation for the Dutch was very grim indeed. If nothing was done to help them they would most certainly have all been taken out by the attacking militants. Something had to be done to salvage the situation."

It was then that Fijibatt machine guns on the roof of the Fijibatt HQ came into play. They were ordered to switch their fire from supporting Charlie Checkpoint and swing their barrels towards the trapped Dutch.

Fijibatt was able to lay down a curtain of fire between the hapless Dutch soldiers and the advancing attackers.

"In a sustained fire role, Fijibatt machine guns methodically laid down a curtain of fire that would enable the Dutch to withdraw to safer ground near Qana Village. Several of the attackers ran into this curtain of fire and were incapacitated."

"The Fijibatt machine guns were using tracer bullets - they ignited on their trajectory thus allowing the machine gunners to establish where their rounds were falling. This ignition factor was also used to pour fire into the dried grass in the area causing a grass fire."

The tactic worked. The wind blew the smoke from the grass fire across the Dutch soldiers, masking them from their attackers and affording them extra cover to withdraw.

By this stage more of the attackers had run into the curtain of fire. The remnants of the attacking force realised the futility of their attack and turned and ran from the scene, scattering down a slope into a gully at the foot of the hill.

This is where the second unreported turn of events occurred which demonstrated the application of fire discipline by Fijibatt.

Abandoning their dead and wounded on the battlefield, the surviving AEs ran down into the cover of a gulley near Qana where they went to lick their wounds and regroup.

Unbeknown to them, the gulley was covered by a group of Fijibatt soldiers from Headquarters Company.

Concealed by the rocks and olive trees above the gulley, Major Jo Volau was in charge of this group. He was the battalion's second in command. He radioed Fijibatt HQ reporting the situation and seeking approval to engage the surviving AEs.

The reply from commanding officer Sanday was promptly relayed: "We are professional soldiers. We do not shoot prisoners. We will always respect the human and political rights of the civilian population. Do not engage. Let them go in safety."

Those orders were obeyed.

Later that afternoon the AEs wanted to negotiate a ceasefire and once an agreement was reached the attackers withdrew into safety. They were given the opportunity to remove their dead and take the wounded with them.

Erskine said the casualities suffered by the AEs were high, compared to the UNIFIL who had four men injured, two seriously.

"Indications were that some 15 AEs were killed and many more wounded in what was considered the most serious clash involving UNIFIL up to that date. Considering the AE's heavy casualties and the Arab tendency to seek revenge, it could be reasonably assumed they would retaliate."

This they did, two days later with an ambush at Wadi Jilu

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