Phase 1: Planning operations from Paris
October 1997: While the crisis in Congo-Brazzaville was affecting many large cities throughout the country, Pointe-Noire was hit by scenes of violence and clashes between various armed groups.
Within hours, a crisis centre is set up
A crisis centre was set up as soon as events began to occur. Our Consul General in Pointe-Noire was monitoring the situation hour-by-hour and gathering information from the ground, in particular from religious communities which had seen pickups with armed men drive by, while other calls reported violence against persons. From the Quai d’Orsay, we decided to increase the security around the French Consul General, so troops from our Special Operations Command (COS) were sent to the building. We also took the decision to strengthen the team of diplomats on site in Pointe-Noire and that very evening two colleagues set off for the city via Libreville.
Unfortunately, we had not anticipated that our colleagues would run into a “welcoming committee” made up of anti-French militiamen. They were mistreated, their diplomatic passports were torn up before their eyes and they were forced to endure hours of humiliation, including a mock execution. At the crisis centre in Paris, the pressure increased a notch. We were in constant contact with the Consulate-General in Pointe-Noire, the French Embassy in Brazzaville and the Military Staff, trying to gain information and put pressure on the main militia leaders so that our colleagues could be released. Tension in the city and at the Consulate-General was palpable. The next day, we found them in a terrible state in the middle of a crossroads. But all that mattered was they were alive.
The airport was by then under the control of militiamen who had taken up position there. Fighting was intense and sustained gunfire could be heard from many neighbourhoods. There was no way to evacuate French nationals or repatriate our badly shaken colleagues. It was therefore decided that a doctor should be sent. I suggested sending a psychiatrist, which was a first for a foreign crisis involving French nationals. Forty-eight hours later, Dr. Alain P., a colonel and specialist in psychiatry, was secretly transported to the French Consulate-General in Pointe-Noire. He had two missions: to make sure that our mistreated colleagues were quickly looked after and to meet with our compatriots who had been caught in a net for several days with no immediately foreseeable means of escape. Pointe-Noire was a city awash with the most gruesome rumours.
It was at that point that the Angolan forces arrived in Pointe-Noire and entered the fray. The militias pushed them back towards Brazzaville, from where militias from the same movement were fleeing towards Pointe-Noire. At one point when communications were particularly restricted, the various forces were unable to talk to each other and were thus moving towards each other.
Priority for French nationals
At the crisis centre, staff were monitoring the forces converging on Dolisie while checking for any French, European or other nationalities in the region. We discovered a wood processing company, chaired by a German living in Cologne. With all the data available to us, we advised the employees to be careful and to evacuate northwards and if possible to leave by plane for Gabon. But events overtook us. At 11 p.m., we were still in the crisis centre when the phone rang. It was an emergency call, a cry for help from Congo. The man on the other end, panic-stricken and in great distress, was calling on a poor line from a satellite phone: “There are 80 of us here - French, Germans, Danes, Congolese - including women and children. We work for X (wood processing) company and this evening we were attacked by armed men. We’ve taken refuge in a clearing near our facility. Come and pick us up.” Before myself or my boss had time to ask for more details, he continued, "Hang on, there’s a group of men coming, they’ve got guns. Please come quickly... we’re....". Then we heard the sound of automatic gunfire and the line went dead.
Gathering information and contacts
There was not a moment to lose. With all the information we had gathered, we noted down everything the man had told us. While I rang the Chairman of the company for further information, my boss contacted the Director of the Minister’s Private Office to inform him of the real-time crisis situation. He then immediately called the Military Staff, and within the hour, the President of the Republic and the Private Offices of the Prime Minister, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Defence Minister had been contacted, as well as the main counsellors and directors at the Quai d’Orsay.
A crisis meeting was called in the office of the Director of the Minister’s Private Office to weigh up our options. In the meantime, the German Chairman of the wood processing company had sent me several documents: an up-to-date map of the area identifying the clearing where the employees had most likely taken refuge, a list of all employees and their family members present on site and the numbers of all the satellite phones he knew of. I asked him if one of his staff could travel to the crisis centre and he sent us his managing director.
Using all the documents in our possession, we prepared a file for the upcoming meeting. We had to act fast and we were short of equipment. Our photocopier had broken down (which may seem trivial but at the time it caused us extra stress) so we had to dash through the empty corridors of the Quai d’Orsay to find another one. Ultimately, the files were ready on time and the meeting took place, meaning all that remained was the decision to take action.