4 July 2009

Uganda: Israeli Attack On Entebbe

Kampala — It's 33 years since Israel's audacious raid on the old Entebbe Airport. Joshua Kato revisits the incident to find out why Uganda failed to beat off the invaders...

After turning down his request for arms, Amin nurtured the desire to 'teach' the Zionist Israelis a military lesson.

Upon taking power in 1971, his first visit abroad was to Israel. There he requested for military assistance, but nothing tangible was offered. This infuriated Amin and he severed ties with the Jews.

Enticed by the location of an Arab regime in Sudan, north of Uganda, Israel had an interest in maintaining a presence in Uganda for strategic reasons, but consciously, as it studied the new regime. And soon it discovered who the real Amin, propped up by the West, was.

In 1972 Amin arranged a simulation of the invasion of Israel, witnessed by foreign journalists. In a massive and impressive display involving helicopters, tanks and infantry, he acted as the overall commander leading his forces to capture the Golan Heights (Syrian territory occupied by Israel).

"Victory over Israelis," he punched the air at the end of a mock manoeuvre.

Hardly did Amin know that four years later, the Israelis would humiliate him in his own backyard, mocking his desires to fight the Jewish state.

The attack provided an opportunity for Amin to prove his military supremacy that he gloated about, but he missed it. It instead exposed his weaknesses, which were eventually exploited by his enemies who felled his regime in 1979.

July 4, 1976 will go down in history as the day when a country successfully attacked another, 3,000 miles away. It was the first long distance hostage rescue in world military history. How the mission was planned and executed is currently studied at military academies across the world. Two factors worked against Amin. One was the ill-preparedness and the other lack of strategic commanders.

With the whole world focusing on Uganda hosting hostages for a Palestinian terrorist group, there was no commensurate state of alert. A bunch of terrorists hijacked a French Airbus and landed at Entebbe Airport with Amin's approval. This, in military sense, called for high alert and tight security, but no one thought so.

The commander of the Airbase, Col. Godwin Sule, was instead encased in a sex romp two miles away at Lake Victoria Hotel. He was enjoying rounds of passion with his latest woman when the attack commenced.

Another senior army officer had earlier dismissed intelligence information about a possible Israeli attack as rubbish. Brig. Issac Maliyamungu (his name translated from Swahili literally: God's wealth) got briefs about the impending raid, but the gods did not guide him to take them seriously.

The gaffes aside, Uganda had the weapons and the soldiers to securely guard the airport, a fact the Israelis knew and feared.

"They have new jet fighters and tanks, some deployed at the airport. The planes are operated by Russians," Gen. Dan Shomron, the Israeli main architect of the Entebbe attack, told the war council during the planning stages.

Little did Shomron know that on that fateful day, the 'feared' commander of the airbase had other ideas. Sule was one of the officers who were rapidly promoted through the ranks by Amin. Like most of his peers, he had never before been involved in combat. Women were his pastime. Sule was killed in a fierce battle during the 1978-79 war that toppled Amin.

In 1976, Sule was supposed to face an attack prepared by Shomron an equation of empty brain versus brilliant military strategists. Comparatively, Shomron against Sule or Maliyamungu was a mismatch.

Shomron took part in the Six Day War against the Arabs commanding a unit of jeeps and light trucks, fitted with 106mm guns and machine guns. He was among the first forward units to reach areas of the Suez Canal. In Israel, he was respected as a war strategist. He died in 2006.

The Ugandan army was strong but lacked good leadership

A few loopholes if covered could have given Uganda the advantage to beat off the Israeli raid. Under such circumstances, the army should have issued a 'Red Alert' class one all over the airport and deployed massively, soon after the hostages and their captors landed. It is unlikely that the Israelis could have taken a risk to attack a heavily guarded target.

"With the Red Alert, planes would be in the air patrolling the skies. The tanks and troops would be on 'standby' class one. Even with the initial surprise attack, with good command, the soldiers would have been able to fight back," says a former Amin soldier, now serving in the UPDF.

At the time, Uganda's arsenal had at least 30 fighter jets at the airport, including MIG17s and MIG21s. They were fairly new planes. With 'high value' hostages at the airport, any security-conscious army should have had at least a pair constantly patrolling the skies of the country. Since the Israelis did not bring any fighter jets, the MIGs should have done the job.

In total, the country at the time had 267 tanks and APCs spread around the country. On the day of attack, six tanks were stationed around the airport perimeters. These should have given the invading Israelis a real fight.

Amin had also just acquired several Surface-to-Air Missiles through Libya, which his army could have used against the Israeli planes. It is a story of a 21,000-strong army well equipped, but lacking effective leadership and command.

"It was the same problem that affected us two years later during the 1978 war. We lacked commanders to assess situations," says the former Amin soldier.

Earlier in January 1976, the Uganda Army had carried out one of the largest military exhibitions ever seen in the East African region. At least 70 T-55 MBTs and APCs rumbled through the city, as MIG fighters flew over.

Had Maliyamungu taken the intelligence reports about the attack seriously, the Israelis would have found a totally different battlefield.

Amin returned from the OAU summit in Mauritius a few hours before the attack. He didn't think of the possibility of Israeli attacking the airport, yet he boasted of being a professional soldier.

After 90 minutes at Entebbe, the Israelis confidently took off, leaving behind a trail of death, destruction and injured pride.

On the tarmac 20 Uganda soldiers lay dead.

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