OPERATION SHINING EXPRESS (2003)


As violence in Liberia increased in mid June 2003 the US Ambassador to Liberia requested military aid in the event that embassy personnel and American citizens had to be evacuated from the country.
At the direction of the Secretary of Defense, the U.S. European Command sent military support to the region to provide the ambassador an enhanced capability to monitor the situation in Liberia and to be pre-positioned to aid in any evacuation of U.S. citizens. This deployment was given the name Shining Express.

International staff of the UN and non-governmental organizations (NGOs)were forced to evacuate from Monrovia on 11 June 2003, when intense fighting in the western suburbs threatened to spread into the city. However, some international staff of ICRC and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) remained, as well as significant number of local staff of the UN and NGOs. There were approximately 30 UN international staff in Monrovia, some of whom returned to the capital after being evacuated in early June 2003, but most were confined to the UN compound.

Foreign Minister De Villepin stated that everyone must meet their responsibilities in the crises in Western Africa, as France did in Côte d'Ivoire and the UK did in Sierra Leone. Clearly, in the case of Liberia, the US has a special tradition.

Operation Shining Express includes special operations forces, Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps and Reserve components. Operation Shining Express personnel are augmented security forces at the Embassy in Monrovia and supported State Department officials who were conducting an orderly departure of US citizens wishing to leave the country.

USS Kearsarge (LHD 3), then returning to the United States after serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom, was directed to join forces in support of Operation Shining Express, to aid in the potential evacuation of U.S. citizens from the country of Liberia.

With fighting gaining in intensity, pressure increased on the United States to take an more active role in the Liberian conflict. On June 30, 2003, the United Nations Security Council held closed-door consultations to discuss the possibile deployment of a multi-national force to Liberia, following a request by Kofi Annan, the United Nations' Secretary-General. Annan raised the prospect of US involvement, under the logic that such an intervention to prevent a major tragedy should be led by a Member State and be authorized under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. West African mediators were also among those calling for a US military intervention.

With pressure increasing for President Bush to send troops to Liberia, the US administration was reported to be weighing the options available to it. Bush, once again called on the Charles Taylor to step down from power.

According to a July 2, 2003, VOA story, several dozen Marines were on stand-by at a base in Spain ready to go to Liberia in the eventuality that security around the U.S. embassy there was to deteriorate further; these soldiers being part of a special rapid, anti-terrorism force. Contingency plans had also reportedly been drawn up which would call for the deployment of up to 2,000 US soldiers to Liberia.

Military chiefs of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) pledged on 04 July 2003 to raise 3,000 troops from member countries for an intervention force to restore peace in Liberia. Ghana's Lieutenant-General Seth Obeng, Chairman of the ECOWAS Defence and Security Commission, said the ability of West African countries to send enough troops to Liberia was plagued by financial and logistical constraints. "ECOWAS and the African Union should intensify their initiatives to get an advanced country, possibly the United States, to spearhead peace efforts in Liberia, just as Britain and France did for Sierra Leone and Cote d'Ivoire," he suggested.

On July 7, 2003, two U.S helicopters brought a 32 man military civil affairs assessment team to the U.S embassy compound in Monrovia. The team was tasked with evaluating conditions for deployment of peacekeepers to Liberia.

Forces loyal to Liberian President Charles Taylor have prevented a team of U.S. experts assessing humanitarian and security needs from entering a refugee camp near Monrovia, the capital.

On July 21, 2003 following additional incidents of violence a US Marine Corps Fleet Anti-Terrorism Security Team was dispatched to Monrovia to provide enhance security at the US Embassy and to evacuate US personnel. Additionally, the Iwo Jima Amphibious Ready Group carrying the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit was ordered to reposition in the Mediterranean Sea in the even that the President decided to dispatch additional forces to the area.

On July 25, 2003 the Bush Administration announced that the Iwo Jima ARG would be deployed off the coast of Liberia in anticipation of assisting ECOWAS forces.



Non-combatant Evacuation Operations (NEO)

Liberia evacuations continue
by Capt. Kristi Beckman 398th Air Expeditionary Group Public Affairs

7/25/2003 - LUNGI, Sierra Leone (AFPN) -- Flying 200 feet above palm trees and myriad grass huts, the 56th Expeditionary Rescue Squadron completed its mission -- inserting the remaining members of the Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team and evacuating more people from the U.S. Embassy in Liberia.

The squadron, out of Iceland’s Naval Air Station Keflavik, is part of the 398th Air Expeditionary Group. It has been in Sierra Leone since July 13 providing personnel recovery and emergency evacuation for the Humanitarian Assistance Survey Team in Liberia.

"We are now an established air bridge here, providing a lifeline for the embassy," said Col. Steven Dreyer, 398th AEG commander. "If anyone is in trouble, and we are called upon, we can move in quickly and get them out. "

During the latest mission, the Air Force and the Marine Corps worked hand in hand to get the 56th ERQS’s HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters loaded. The helicopters were soon packed with Marines and their gear, and within minutes took off toward an undisclosed staging area.

Upon arrival, a team from the 786th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron, also part of the 398th AEG, was dropped off to secure the area and establish communications. Tech. Sgt. Robert Arbelo, 1st Combat Communications Squadron, provided initial communication between the helicopters and the command post.

"It was exhilarating being part of a mission like this," said Arbelo. "It’s one thing to be a part of communications, but it’s another thing to actually see what your communications can accomplish. Usually you’re sitting behind a radio away from the action. Here, you’re part of it."

Securing the forward-staging area with the rest of the security forces team was Staff. Sgt. Ace Jones, 786th ESFS operations superintendent.

"It’s not every day cops get to jump on a helicopter and deploy forward to help the Marines," he said. "So, when a call comes for something like this, there’s no doubt, they know you want to go, they just tell you to pack your bags."

Nearby, about 120 curious locals, mostly children, gathered close to the scene. At that point, the area was secure and the security forces team was awaiting the return of the helicopters from the embassy with the evacuees. In the meantime, the local children had fun talking to the airmen and having their pictures taken with them.

Mohamed C. Kamara, Sierra Leone police constable, was among the crowd.

"I’m not very happy about the fighting in Monrovia," he said. "I want it to end. It’s good that the people are being evacuated because there have been too many close hits on the embassy."

Off in the distance, the faint sounds of the choppers were heard and soon the first helicopter was visible. Children stood wide-eyed as the three choppers flew around to the landing zone. The first helicopter touched down as the wind from the blades parted the grass beneath it. The other two set down and the evacuees jumped off and ran to cover.

Along with the 18 evacuees, the rescue squadron flew five of its people out of the embassy. They had been left there on the first insertion of the FAST.

"The first time we took the FAST in, they wanted us to stay at the embassy for medical support and to clear the landing zone for their return," said Senior Airman Mark Panzera, a 56th ERQS pararescueman. "The first night we were there, a couple mortar rounds hit outside the embassy and injured a reporter. The Marines let him in the embassy and we gave him medical attention."

Panzera said the fighting got worse outside the embassy and the locals started piling bodies up at the front gates and shooting rounds inside the embassy. "We were on standby in case any mortar rounds hit and injured anyone."

"It makes me feel pretty good to be part of a mission like this,” said Panzera. "It’s all just part of my job."

One of the evacuees was Lt. Kristian Wahlgren, a Navy contingency contracting officer with the HAST, who has been in Liberia since July 6 helping assess the humanitarian assistance situation.

"Our first visit in Liberia was to the clinic," said Wahlgren. "There were people coming from everywhere to greet us. It seemed like we brought so much hope. We couldn’t move our vehicles because everyone was surrounding us and cheering us on. They kept chanting, ‘We want peace, no more war."

Wahlgren said the team’s job was finished last week, but when the random shelling started, they could not get out.

"This mission is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Maj. Brett Hartnett, the squadron’s combat rescue liaison to the embassy. "You can read books, talk to people, see things on TV, but never really get the experience of this unless you live it. It’s a great feeling of satisfaction for my pararescuemen and I to be able to pull out those evacuees." (Courtesy of U.S. Air Forces in Europe News Service)

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Airmen fly Marines to Liberia
by Capt. Kristi Beckman 398th Air Expeditionary Group Public Affairs

7/23/2003 - LUNGI, Sierra Leone (AFPN) Air Force HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters flew a Marine antiterrorism security team to the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia, Liberia, on July 21, according to officials here. They also evacuated 23 people.

The airmen and helicopters are assigned to the 56th Expeditionary Rescue Squadron from Naval Air Station Keflavik, Iceland. They are based at an intermediate staging base. The action comes in the wake of growing civil unrest in Liberia.

The 41 Marines are augmenting security forces at American embassies within the U.S. European Command’s area of responsibility.

The 56th ERQS and the 786th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron from Sembach Air Base, Germany, form the 398th Air Expeditionary Group. The units have been providing recovery and emergency evacuation capability for the humanitarian assistance survey team in Liberia since July 13.

"Since their arrival, the … entire team (has) conducted extensive mission planning to include possible courses of action and contingencies," said Capt. Sonny Noyes, 398th AEG battle staff director.

A mission like this one is not easy, according to 1st Lt. Jarrett Lee, a 786th ESFS combat ground intelligence officer.

"We need to plan for different scenarios such as where we’ll stage for fuel, where our alternate airfields will be, and if there’s an in-flight emergency, where would we stop," he said. "If the environment changes and different courses of action show themselves that weren’t planned, that’s when flexibility is the key."

The airmen had to be flexible for the July 21 mission, according to Tech. Sgt. Michael Griffin, a 56th ERQS flight engineer and gunner.

"We took up to nine combat-loaded Marines and cargo per aircraft and flew over the water right (onto) the helipad at the embassy," said Griffin. "One helicopter landed while the other two held over the water. We took turns until all Marines were off-loaded and the people were picked up."

Griffin said the first time the airmen went in, they got a report from the embassy that there was mortar fire within 300 meters.

"We left to unload the passengers," he said. "Then, on the trip back to the embassy … they held us because of the heavy mortar fire."

The mortars came as a surprise, according to Lt. Col. Thomas Sexton, the 56th ERQS deployed squadron commander.

"We felt no sense of immediate danger, and the way the people were standing around in the embassy, we could tell they didn’t feel any danger either," he said. "The mortar fire probably came as a huge surprise to them as well."

The helicopters flew the Marines into the embassy, met up with a deployed MC-130P Combat Shadow from Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England, and then flew back to a staging area to pick up more Marines, according to Col. Steven Dreyer, the 398th AEG commander.

A security team from the 786th ESFS controlled the forward-staging area. The team included security forces, a communications specialist and a medical technician.

"The forward-staging area was important because it shortened the crew’s flying time and allowed us to get more birds into the embassy at any given time," said Maj. James Lowe, the 786th ESFS commander. "We provided communications between the staging base at the tactical operations center at Lungi and the forward-staging area."

The planning paid off, said Sexton.

"Everything flowed smoothly, according to plan," he said. "We’ve been talking to the 786th SFS since April planning a separate exercise, so we knew their capabilities."

"We can support them with increased security protection and airlift, and they can give us base-operations support, " Sexton said.

"The mission went well," said Dreyer. "The extensive planning we did paid off. We knew there was a chance of enemy fire and were prepared." (Courtesy of U.S. Air Forces in Europe News Service)

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© Robert W. Kranz (2005) 
Information courtesy of: www.globalsecurity.org & AirForce Link