The Edition


Operation Cactus: the other side of 1988 coup (3)

Fathmath Shaahunaz
06 November 2016, MVT 13:16
MV Progress Light, commandeered by Sri Lankan mercenaries during the coup on November 3, 1988, smokes after the attack by Indian frigate INS Godavari.
Fathmath Shaahunaz
06 November 2016, MVT 13:16

Continuation from Part 2

When the first aircraft assigned to land at Hulhule reached an altitude of 200 metres, they transmitted a second request to turn on the airport’s runway lights again. Even at that time, the pilot was not certain of the distance between the strip and his plane. The runway lights sparked to life and the pilot guided his aircraft down.

After a journey of three hours and 44 minutes, the first warplane from Agra landed in Hulhule airport at 9:48 p.m. India time (9:18 p.m. local time) on November 3.

The moment its wheels touched down, the runway lights were turned off and the pilot hastened to halt his plane as soon as possible since the end of the strip was nowhere in sight in the blackness outside the cockpit. By the time the plane had come to rest, it was only 300 metres away from the runway’s end. The heavy silence aboard was broken by sighs of relief from its passengers.

Soldiers of the Indian military, that arrived in the Maldives to stop the coup on November 3, 1988, sit in one of the tents erected in Hulhule airport for their stay.

The cargo door slid open and armed maroon beret paratroopers hopped out onto the runway, splitting into groups and taking up their positions within moments. By the time the second aircraft came in for landing, a number of soldiers from the first plane had crossed the runway to position themselves on the other side.

Total 400 soldiers of the Indian Air Force’s No.44 Squadron arrived on November 3 and 4 in five military aircrafts to answer the Maldives’ SOS.

The soldiers of the Indian army were welcomed by Lieutenant Ahmed Zahir of the Maldivian military. He escorted Brigadier Farooq Balsara, Colonel Subhash Joshi and the other commanders to Hulhule Air Traffic Control tower where, over maps and charts of capital Male, he informed them of all the locations attacked by the Sri Lankan mercenaries and sites where they were suspected to be.

By then, the Indian forces had planned to remain in Hulhule overnight to protect the airport until military helicopters arrived on November 4, which was when they would confront the terrorists in Male. When the plan was passed along to Major General Mohamed “two two” Zahir back in National Security Services (NSS) headquarters, he countered the strategy and appealed the Indian army to make haste for Male.

The Indian forces altered their plans in response to the Major’s plea and prepared to enter the Maldives capital. The soldiers would split into two groups with one team approaching Male from the south while the other team would sneak in from the Northeast. Lieutenant Ahmed Zahir had prepared three speedboats and ferry boats from the nearby Bandos Island Resort to carry the Indian soldiers to Male.

Soldiers of the Maldivian and Indian military overseeing the security outside NSS headquarters, riddled with bullet holes, following the Sri Lankan mercenaries' escape after the coup on November 3, 1988.

However, the Indian forces were reluctant to commence their mission before the secret location of President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom was confirmed for them as Brigadier Farooq Balsara had made the president’s security his utmost priority. Nevertheless, Major Mohamed Zahir was adamant that the president’s location not be imparted until the army landed in Male.

It was past 11:00 p.m. that night when the Indian soldiers departed from Hulhule to Male. In an unforeseen development, Hulhule tower soon received a message from NSS headquarters, inquiring the whereabouts of the Indian soldiers that still had not arrived. Immediately NSS’ Staff Sergeant Sham and the Paras’ Brigadier Farooq Balsara hurried to Hulhule’s harbour with a unit of soldiers in search of their missing troops. None of the speedboats and ferries that had carried the bulk of their army to Male were in sight out over the ocean.

What was in plain sight, however, was a cargo ship, “MV Progress Light”, travelling up the channel between Male and its neighbouring Fonadhoo island towards the capital’s main cargo route “Gaadhoo Kolu” off the southern coast of Hulhule. On the brigadier’s orders, Hulhule tower contacted NSS headquarters to inquire about the suspicious freighter. The urgent reply was startling – the mercenaries were fleeing at the Indian army’s approach and they were commandeering the cargo ship, holding its crew and passengers hostage, to make their getaway. Staff Sergeant Sham relayed Major Zahir’s request to stop the freighter’s escape.

Brigadier Farooq Balsara’s response was instantaneous. Bringing the new situation to the immediate attention of his forces, he snatched a Carl Gustaf rifle from a nearby soldier and fired three shots at the cargo ship.

Citizens of Male were very cooperative as soldiers of the Indian Air Force tracked mercenaries throughout Male on November 3, 1988.

Brigadier Balsara and Staff Sergeant Sham gave chase to the ship on a jeep, speeding to the southern end of Hulhule where they fired rifles and heavy weapons across the ocean. However, the freighter was soon beyond range, escaping down Gaadhoo Kolu.

With the new development of the mercenaries fleeing, the Indian forces altered their plans so that both groups heading to Male landed on its southern shore.

It was 1:45 a.m. when the Indian army, aided by local soldiers, made it to President Maumoon’s secret hideaway at Gulisthaanu house in Maafannu ward. Colonel Joshi and Major Dhillon took a unit of soldiers with Lieutenant Ahmed Zahir to meet the president, after which President Maumoon and the colonel commenced strengthening the defences and security of the area.

In the meantime, Lieutenant Zahir headed to NSS headquarters with Major Dhillon and his soldiers. After meeting with Major Zahir, the security around the military base was handed over to the Indian forces and preparations commenced to transfer the president and his family to NSS.

Two police cars carried President Maumoon and his family to the military headquarters, accompanied by a unit of Indian soldiers that ran alongside the vehicles. At the time of the November 3 attack, the only child of the president in Male was the then 8 year old Ghassan while his eldest children were studying in the United Kingdom.

INS Tir, the Indian frigate called to assist in stopping the freighter MV Progress Light commandeered by Sri Lankan mercenaries after the coup on November 3, 1988.

After securing the president’s safety, the Indian forces were faced with two tasks. One was to inspect Male and nearby islands for any mercenaries that may still be in hiding, while the other was to rescue the hostages aboard the cargo ship commandeered by the fleeing terrorists.

Upon learning of the mercenaries’ escape and hostage situation, President Maumoon ordered the military to commence a rescue operation at once. The Indian army’s assistance was requested for the new mission.

The Indian Navy’s main headquarters in India soon issued a transmission. The command, ordering to commence an immediate route to the Maldives to rescue 14 locals and crew aboard a freighter commandeered by terrorists, was communicated to the Indian naval frigates INS Godavari docked at Port Blair in Australia, INS Betwa travelling to Somalia and INS Tir docked at Cochin Port in India.

It was decided that four soldiers of NSS would be sent ahead to one of the warships to hold negotiations with the mercenaries. The team comprising Major Adam Zahir, Captain Mohamed Naeem, Staff Sergeant Ahmed Rashid and Corporal Farhath Shaheer left for Lankan capital Colombo on an Indian military aircraft at 2:30 a.m. on November 5. From Colombo, the four soldiers boarded a military helicopter and landed on INS Godavari at 6:00 a.m. on that day.

INS Godavari, the Indian frigate that assisted in stopping the freighter MV Progress Light commandeered by Sri Lankan mercenaries after the coup on November 3, 1988.

Meanwhile, the commandeered freighter MV Progress Light was making for Mullikulam in the north of Sri Lanka when she came upon INS Betwa around 2:45 a.m. on November 5. Ignoring warnings to halt from the Indian warship, MV Progress Light continued on her way until she was hindered again by INS Godavari at 11:30 a.m. Communicating over the VHS set, the two warships urged the commandeers to open up for negotiation, but all requests for peace talks were ignored even as the day came to a close.

MV Progress Light was still making for Sri Lanka, rejecting negotiations, by the time the sun rose on November 6. Though the Indian frigates had imposed a deadline until 6:00 a.m. that day for the mercenaries to surrender, which the former even extended by 15 minutes, the mercenaries retorted they would stand firm on their course no matter the frigates’ actions.

INS Betwa, the Indian frigate that assisted in stopping the freighter MV Progress Light commandeered by Sri Lankan mercenaries after the coup on November 3, 1988.

Giving up the mercenaries for a lost cause, the Indian warships heightened their attacks around the freighter to force their surrender. In the wake of shockwaves created by grenades that INS Godavari’s helicopter dropped in the ocean around MV Progress Light, the frigates launched a powerful strike against the freighter. The violent confrontation between the cargo ship and the frigates resulted in the deaths of a number of mercenaries and three hostages.

Realising there was no escape, the Sri Lankan mercenaries finally surrendered at 8:55 a.m. on November 5. The rescued hostages and crew of MV Progress Light along with the captured mercenaries that survived the attack were brought aboard INS Godavari. While the hostages that had suffered serious injuries were transported by helicopter to India’s Trivandrum for medical treatment, INS Godavari departed for Male with the remaining hostages and arrested mercenaries at 5:50 a.m. on November 7 after MV Progress Light had capsized. The sun had almost set when she docked at Male harbour the next day.

Soldiers of the Indian army inspecting Male on a jeep to find any remaining Sri Lankan mercenaries that might be in hiding after the coup on November 3, 1988.

Eleven civilians and eight local soldiers were martyred in this terror attack launched on the nation in 1988. The Maldives’ judiciary put 75 individuals on trial over the coup, seven of whom were Maldivians that had taken part in the conspiracy while the others were captured mercenaries. The death sentence was passed on four of the Maldivians and twelve Sri Lankan mercenaries, while 33 of the foreign terrorists were exiled to different islands of the Maldives. The rest faced prison sentences.

The course of this mission saw the active participation of total 1,600 soldiers of the Indian army to whom the Maldivian nation would always be indebted in gratitude. The numbers dropped to 800 over a short period of time, and the last of the Indian soldiers left the Maldives a year later after ensuring its security and sovereignty, finally bringing the successful Operation Cactus to an end.