The United States and Sudan came close to a military confrontation in 2006 after Sudanese authorities held eleven US military personnel for five hours at Al-Fasher airport in Darfur, a US defense magazine reported today.
The Air Force Times online magazine reported that the standoff between both sides was an unexpected development in the course of events from a semi-routine mission planned by the US military base in Camp Lemonier, Djibouti.
The assignment objective was humanitarian in nature which is to pick a US military liaison from the capital city of North Darfur and fly him back to Djibouti to reunite with pregnant wife who was sick.
The military command assembled a team consisting of eight crew members, six members of the Guam National Guard and three engineers as a precaution in the event of a mechanical emergency.
The plan was based on the premise of landing in a hostile and dangerous area, and as such the crew members received short intelligence briefings and images of Al-Fasher airport taken before 2003, when Sudanese military operations out of the airfield had increased.
The HC-130 Hercules, plane considered a combat search and rescue transport plane, landed first in Khartoum airport just before noon to pick up a US embassy representative and took off to Darfur.
The Al-Fasher airport was filled with Sudanese military and intelligence officers as well as military helicopters and ant-aircraft guns.
Two US military liaisons with six locked duffel bags were waiting for the plane at the airport and informed them that the man they came to pick up had left five days earlier but needed his bags of equipment and four 9mm pistols.
The crew members loaded the bags and hid the guns in the plane before they checked in with airfield officials, who requested that co-pilots First Lieutenant Timothy Saxton and First Lieutenant John Cuddy, deliver their flight plan to the air traffic control tower.
While Saxton and Cuddy were gone, a dozen armed Sudanese dressed in civilian clothes circled the plane. The aircraft commander Major James Woosley instructed the crew members to monitor their movements with a sensor underneath the aircraft that has a forward-looking infrared radar camera inside.
The magazine said that around the plane were uniformed Sudanese soldiers working near their three Mi-24 helicopter gunships and one An-26 turboprop in which they were loading it with blue canisters filled with explosives
Across from the Sudanese aircraft were 15 Mi-8 Hip helicopters operated by the UN and two more loaded with wounded and dead children landed near the US plane.
The US crew members then started taking pictures of humanitarian aid workers rushing to save the wounded and carrying the dead off in body bags using their cell phones and personal cameras.
Moments later Saxton and Cuddy returned after receiving clearance for takeoff from the control tower. However, as the HC-130 taxied off the ramp in preparation for takeoff, a Sudanese intelligence officer noticed the camera and “reached for his cell phone and started barking orders into it”.
The airport authorities informed the aircrew that they must return to the ramp immediately but gave no reasons. However, the two US military liaisons on the ground informed them that the Sudanese intelligence officer “was worried the aircraft’s FLIR ball had recorded images of the blue canisters being loaded onto the An-26”.
Nine Sudanese intelligence and military officers came up to the plane and accused its members of being spies and demanded to search the plane, which aircraft commander Major James Woosley declined to grant permission.
The Sudanese officers yelled at Woosley and one of his colleagues navigator Captain Jesse Enfield, threatening to kill them. They also ordered Woosley to pick one officer to leave the plane to pay a $400 landing fee and he decided to send Cuddy and Saxton.
Woosley returned back on board the plane and ordered crew members to put on their body armour and conceal handguns underneath their uniforms since he had told the Sudanese that they were unarmed and also put Master Sergeant Paul Widener in charge
The aircraft commander came outside again leaving the door open to show the Sudanese that he had nothing to hide. Inside the plane, however the Guam National Guardsmen moved into positions to defend the aircraft and Widener radioed back to Djibouti to report the events.
The Sudanese insisted that Woosley allow them to inspect the duffel bags they picked up earlier which they did and only clothes and personal possessions showed in the search.
Angered by their meager findings, the Sudanese officers inquired as to why the US would fly a mission simply to pick up the bags but the explanation that was provided apparently made them more irate.
The Air Force Times said that at that point about 20 Sudanese soldiers joined the nine officers and circled Woosley and Enfield. One grabbed Woosley, and another slapped his sunglasses off his head.
Woosley and Enfield pushed through the crowd and got back onto the aircraft. Cuddy and Saxton had also returned. The US military liaison told the crew members the Sudanese officials planned to arrest them for espionage and have them executed.
To make matters worst a Sudanese soldier asked Woosley if there were any women on board; when Woosley answered yes, the soldier countered that women didn’t belong in the military and said he would rape and sell them once they were all arrested.
The lone soldier then asked to see the women but Woosley said no and got back on the plane telling the two female crewmembers to move to the middle of the aircraft, where they were harder to spot.
At around sunset, one of the US military liaisons radioed Woosley to give him two pieces of information: First, the Sudanese officials planned to close the airfield in 15 minutes, then arrest and probably execute the crew. Second, State Department officials had been informed of the confrontation and had ordered Woosley not to leave the plane or let anyone on the plane.
“We were working with the [Sudan] Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the intel folks as well. And I think we took a … very strong line, which is, if someone comes on the plane, shoot ‘em. I think it was just through our embassy and myself, just making clear that these guys were not to give over anything to the Sudanese,” Jendayi Frazier, the former US assistant secretary of state for African affairs said in an interview.
The plane was locked down upon orders of Woosley after which 50 Sudanese soldiers carrying AK-47 drove up next to the HC-130 and took firing positions They also two .50-caliber machine guns and one rocket-propelled grenade launcher near the tail and multiple 7.62mm machine guns with tripods on the sides of the plane. An old fire truck drove up and parked in front of the plane’s nose, cutting off the crew’s exit.
As the situation became tenser, one of the US military liaisons stepped up to a Sudanese intelligence officer and issued a stern warning, kill the airmen and prepare for war with the US.
Shortly afterwards a Sudanese soldier tried to force his way inside the aircraft. Senior Airman Chris Fuller leaned into the crew entrance door at the front of the plane. It was the one door the crew couldn’t lock because it could only be locked from the outside. After a few seconds, the soldier backed off, but the others continued yelling at the aircraft.
Sergeant Paul Widener communicated back with Djibouti asking if they were to expect any support; the response was that no aircraft had taken off as of yet.
A US military liaison then demanded to speak with the airfield commander, a Sudanese colonel. The colonel told the liaison he would have to consult with his superior, a lieutenant general.
Only after that did the Sudanese authorities allow the US plane to take off to Khartoum where they refuelled and left to their base in Djibouti.
Sudanese security officers are generally hostile to Western soldiers present in light of poor relations between Sudan and the Western countries particularly as a result of the Darfur crisis.
In 2008 Sudan shot dead a French soldier European security force in Chad (EUFOR) who went inside the borders.
The Defence ministry in Paris said the soldiers who strayed across the border encountered a Sudanese checkpoint and quickly declared their identity, but were fired on without warning.
Sudan, however, said that a military jeep that entered from Chad was carrying six French soldiers who opened fire on a Sudanese army position.
Angered by the incident, French President Nicolas Sarkozy condemned on the “deliberate and disproportionate” use of force by Sudan and demanded that Khartoum “take all necessary measures” to prevent a repeat of the incident”.