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August 2000

Destroying Arms at Source

This is a not a trucking story - although it has a strong link to truck hijackings. It is also not a war story even though it has at its core weapons of war such as AK47s which have been used in crimes such as truck hijackings, cash heists and bank robberies. This is a story that tells of a group of men from different countries, different backgrounds and different cultures who have linked hands to destroy the weapons of war that are being used to cause chaos in our society. It is a story that inspires hope and as such, deserves a place in this magazine for it proves there are still people around committed to making this a safer region for all to live in. The story has been unfolding in Mozambique since 1995 and FleetWatch editor Patrick O'Leary joined the men of Operation Rachel to record its success.

We're positioned about one-and-a-half kilometres from the blast. "Don't stand in the open. Take cover behind the vehicles." It's the booming voice of Director Mike Fryer, Head of the National Special Task Force of the SAPS as he warns us it's going off in about 60 seconds.

I crouch behind one of the Isuzu KB 280 4x4s donated by Delta Motor Corporation for use in the operation. Derek Maltby, product communications manager for Delta and Geoff Dalglish, freelance journalist and 4x4 fanatic, are alongside me. We wait. It was a seven minute fuse and there's seconds to go. Our cameras are up and ready - and there she blows.

Immediately a huge dust cloud mushrooms in the distance. It all happens in nano-seconds and I'm just about to click the shutter when the sound of the blast hits us. It's one 'hengsa' boom which results in me getting one 'hengsa' fright which results in me giving my camera one 'hengsa' jerk. So much for the once-in-a-lifetime pic. It's off-centre.

Above: And there she blows! May those weapons never be replaced in this region is the wish of all, including the Special Task Force's Superintendent Renco Roeland, enjoying a Coke after a hard day's work.

Top left: Director Mike Fryer, Head of the National Special Task Force of the SAPS. A man among men.

We watch in awe as the smoke cloud loses its mushroom shape and spirals upwards. "Wow, I want a cracker like that," is the humourous comment from a colleague as we climb back onto the Isuzu bakkies to go see the damage.

I'm riding back with Superintendent Martin Aylward, spokesperson for the Detective Services of SAPS head-office. "Where's my camera bag?" I ask as I look around the cab. And then I remember. "Aargh no. I left it at the blast."

"You're joking!" he replies.

"I'm not." And I wasn't. What a turkey! Not only did a huge amount of arms, ammunition, hand grenades, rocket launchers, mortar bombs and other weapons of war get blasted into a million pieces. So too did my passport. I adopt the Gone with the Wind philosophy of 'we'll worry about that later' because it's really not an issue when compared to what is going on here.

And this is the aftermath of the blast - a four or so metre deep hole symbolising the "hole" these men are putting in the efforts of those evil do'ers who selfishly seek to gain from the weapons that brought - and continue to bring - only misery to the region.

Bigger issue at stake

Operation Rachel, as it is called, is of such vast importance for the region that having your passport, other papers and a back-up camera blown up by 60kgs of commercial explosive is nothing. There's a bigger issue at stake and it is driven home when we arrive back at the scene to find a four to five metre deep crater. As it happens, one of the explosive experts had rescued my camera bag before lighting the fuse and leaving the scene. Phew!

As I look down into that pit, the thought strikes that this hole symbolises the hole made in the efforts of those who use weapons of war for selfish gain during times of peace. Where there was a pile of assorted arms, missiles and ammunition, there is now a hole. It's not a dent, it's a hole - a massive one - and there's nothing left of those weapons of war.

I also find it symbolic that the destruction of this latest batch of arms has taken place a mere three days after Mozambique celebrated its 25th anniversary as an independent state. Since that day on June 25th 1975, Mozambique has tried to get back onto a sound footing with the pace for doing so accelerated after the general peace accord in 1992 - and then even more so after the South Africa elections in 1994 ended the destabilisation process of the region.

Given this background, it's almost as if the explosion and the destruction of these arms was an endorsement of the general consensus of Mozambicans that they have had enough of war and chaos.

Operation Rachel, a joint operation conducted between South Africa and Mozambique to find arms caches in Mozambique and blast them into the land of never-never, has succeeded far beyond all expectations. (See list of weapons destroyed).

The hundreds of arms caches buried in Mozambican soil are left-overs from the Frelimo/Renamo war days and the governments of both countries want them destroyed so as to prevent their further use in any other war or in acts of crime.

Bilateral agreement

The operation was started in 1995 following a bilateral agreement between the heads of state of Mozambique and South Africa. At the time, the destruction of the arms caches was vitally important to South Africa as there was a large influx of arms - specifically AK47s - into South Africa which were being used in criminal activities such as truck hijackings, cash heists and other armed robberies. It was also generally accepted that arms used in the bloody clashes in KwaZulu Natal were of Mozambican origin. Given the right connections, an AK47 was as easy to get hold of as was a packet of smokes.

Although operations were mounted to try stop the smuggling, the decision was taken to cut the supply off at source - and herein lay a problem. The source lay in hundreds of buried arms caches scattered far and wide across the rural bush regions in the provinces of Mozambique. It would not be an easy task.

However, with the political will in place - and with a co-operative spirit in terms of a joint venture between the South Africa Police Services and the Mozambican Police - Operation Rachel got underway.

The modus operandi then, as it still is today, is for the Intelligence Services of the two police services to go into a region first and solicit information from the locals. They receive information from informers, verify the information and once the arms cashes are identified, the Special Task Force of the SAPS then moves in with their explosive and other experts to destroy the caches.

Positive impact

And it has had a positive impact. According to Director Martin Naude of the Serious & Violent Crimes Unit of the SAPS, the good news is that the smuggling of AKs across the borders has been virtually stopped. "An indication of the success of Operation Rachel is that over the last two years, we haven't apprehended any arms smugglers on route to Gauteng," he says.

The bad news is that there are hundreds of arms caches still to be found and destroyed. "It is because of this that it is difficult to put a time scale on the operation," says Naude.

Up to now, funding has been provided by the EU with the Belgian government being a major funder over the past three years. And the funds are still there to continue. So too is the will. Hear the words of Commissioner Nataniel Macamo from Mozambique's Ministry of the Interior. "We started a long time ago to destroy all weapons and we must continue in our efforts to establish a secure, tranquil and harmonious region for all of us."

Interesting is that according to Director Naude, the success of Operation Rachel has led to enquiries being received from other countries to copy the operation. "This is a first in the world and we have even had the FBI attend a course on how the operation works." He stresses, however, that this type of venture will only work if there is the political will to make it succeed. "If there is a group within a country that is against the concept, it won't work."

In Mozambique, everyone wants it to succeed. "Mozambicans want their country to work. They are tired of war," he says.

Elite band of men

The guys from the Special Task Force also want continued success. This is an elite band of men whose roots go back to the Fox Street hostage drama played out at the Israeli Embassy in Johannesburg in the 1970s. That experience showed South Africa needed a specialised capability able to deal with such situations. Director Mike Fryer was one of the men chosen to establish such a force.

With initial training received in Israel, the Special Task Force was formed and a measure of the exclusiveness of this unit is given via the fact that there are only 96 members to date.

"We have a course running at the moment which started out with 203 applicants. There are now 10 men left and we still have three months to go. I'll be happy if we come out with five," Fryer tells me as we stand on the edge of a muddy plain where we're watching the locals earn currency by helping push vehicles through the grime as they detour around a bridge washed away during the floods.

Fryer had flown in by helicopter to join us for the afternoon. We had been in the area from the day before after meeting up with some members of the Special Task Force in Maputo and heading out just past Macia on the road to Xai Xai where we camped in the middle of the bush for the night. And middle of the bush it was. There is sweet nothing there apart from a great view, lots of bush, some more bush and then some more. Oh yes, and mosquitoes - but not herds of them.

Standing round the camp fire that night, I looked around at these men and thought how fortunate we are to have such people serving this country. Their dedication is solid and their commitment to making this region a safer place for all of us is unwavering.

And their efforts are not just aimed at halting the violence associated with truck hijacking, cash heists or bank robberies. Earlier today, my wife and I sat at breakfast with her brother and his wife listening to the story of how one of their son's classmates had been shot during a house robbery.

The parents had gone to a meeting at the school and left their two daughters and son with the maid. When they returned home, they found their maid and daughters locked in the bathroom and the body of their nine-year-old son lying in a pool of blood on the lounge floor. He had been shot in the leg and had bled to death. Those swine had shot him in the leg and left him to bleed to death. He was only nine-years-old for goodness sake!!!! What harm could he have done them?

Where did that gun come from? Where did those big brave men who kill nine-year-olds get it from? Did it start its journey to South Africa by being unearthed from one of those hundreds of arms caches around Mozambique? It may well have - and there could well be more to come in. However, some solace can be taken in the fact that there are men out there - from both South Africa and Mozambique - who are doing their utmost to stop the flow of arms into this country.

It is to these men on both sides of the border that FleetWatch pays tribute. We salute you for the work you're doing in making our lives - and the future of our children - that bit safer. It is through your efforts that the lives of our nine-years-olds may be saved. For this, we thank you.

Operation Rachel
Weapons destroyed since 1996
Firearms :
13 814
Pistols :
Anti personnel mines :
6 390
Landmines :
Hand grenades :
1 480
Grenade detonators :
Mortars (60/81mm) :
8 510
RPGs :
RPG projectiles :
8 500
Boosters :
1 340
Cannons :
Ammunition rounds :
3 448 891
Magazines :
7 518
Nose fuses :
Bipods (mortar) :
Bombs (aircraft) :
Cannon rounds :
Explosives :
Other :
3 734
between June 15th 2000 to end June 2000
AK47s :
Other firearms :
RPG 2 & 7s :
PRG missiles :
Hand grenades :
Anti personnel mines :
Detonators :
Plastic explosives :
Cortex wire :
Ammunition rounds :
47 580
Magazines :
Boosters for RPG :
Boosters, B10 cannon :
Mortars 81mm
Mortars 60mm

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