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.
Episode 1 : Planning operations from Paris
An imminent intervention
Based on the conclusions of the meeting, the President of the French Republic decided a few minutes after it ended that we had to take action. The military personnel needed three hours to launch the operation. We woke up the French Ambassador in Libreville to ask him to take immediate steps. The Gabonese authorities had to be informed that French helicopters would be taking off from Port-Gentil to intervene in the neighbouring country in an attempt to rescue French, European and Congolese nationals. At the same time at the Quai d’Orsay, similar steps were being requested of the Permanent Representative of France to the UN in New York by the Director of the United Nations Section. He was asked to inform the Secretary-General of the United Nations and representatives from the Security Council of our plan to organize the operation. The same steps were being taken in Brussels, where the European Commission and the Permanent Representatives of the EU Member States were made aware of the situation.
A high-risk mission
The operation was codenamed "Antilope". After we had helped to draw up the planning file based on both pre-existing and real-time information, the Military Staff then adapted the entire set of data into what is known as operational planning - preparations for engaging in a high-risk operation. We lacked a lot of information; we knew very little about the attacking forces: how many of them were there, what was their state of mind - aggressive, belligerent, anti-French -, what weapons did they have? We simply did not know. The operation was to take place overnight with highly-trained and experienced commando units. Furthermore, we were unable to reach the man who had initially called the Ministry and did not know if there were any casualties in the group.
Despite the sketchy information, the helicopters took off at 3:30 a.m., heading south. A plane carrying a communication relay set off simultaneously, thus allowing the helicopters to communicate with the officers monitoring the operation from Port-Gentil, Libreville and Paris. They crossed the border into Congo and headed straight for the clearing. At the same time a military officer had managed to contact the man who had called us a few hours previously. After over 100 unanswered calls, the line was finally back and the officer told him what steps the group should follow. A few minutes later, all 80 people were evacuated, albeit with some resistance from the militiamen. By the time they reached Libreville, it was a party of 81 - a baby girl had been born upon arrival, and was fittingly christened Antilope.
These events impressed upon us the importance of gathering as much information as possible prior to crises in isolated communities, because despite all our efforts to prepare for and anticipate events and to collect data, the situation could well have turned out differently and have had a much more tragic ending. We must also commend the bravery of our troops, who risked their lives to enter unknown territory and succeeded in safely evacuating every last person.