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WAR STORY: The Somalia Battle That Propelled Maj Gen Paul Loketch to the Top

After the fall of Mogadishu in 2011, the UPDF-led AMISOM forces had another challenge.

The Al Shabaab fighters, who had dissolved in the civilian population, continued to take on UPDF and Burundian troops in street battles.

Mortar shells were fired from suburbs, striking UPDF bases. This shelling continued for weeks.

The presidential palace was not spared either as Al Shabaab continued to attack it with mortar shells and suicide bombers.

Ugandan military experts started studying the source of mortars.

Using artillery sound ranging, Ugandan military experts were able to determine the coordinates of a hostile battery using data derived from the sound of its mortars.

The same methods can be used to direct artillery fire at a position with known coordinates.

Ugandan military officers determined that “these Al Shabaab must be having a base not far away from our camp.”

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Then Brigadier General Muhoozi Kainerugaba had sent in Special Forces commandos to work with Somalia’s National Security Agency to conduct searches for the Al Shabaab terrorists.

Through intelligence, it was established that the Al Shabaab, who were firing mortars were nearby – in the northwestern part of Mogadishu. They were entrenched in Mogadishu University and Masilah, a small suburb.

UPDF decided to move in and capture the University. Under Al Shabaab, education had collapsed. The campus was used as the fighters’ base.

Battle  

The battle to capture the campus started at 10:00am. For the entire day, UPDF soldiers were fighting a conventional war.

“We were coming via an open ground. Pulling the Al Shabaab out of Mogadishu University was not easy because they were so entrenched,” recalled UPDF Land Forces spokesperson Lt Col Henry Obbo, who participated in the war.

“We couldn’t use bombs to attack Al Shabaab because we wanted to protect the infrastructure at the campus. So, we used expert shooters. Our highly trained snipers would identify the Al Shabaab’s shooting position and hit them,” Obbo told this investigative reporter in Somalia in 2019.

“Snipers are hit by snipers. They had snipers too. So, it was fire taking out fire. We would easily identify them with our counter snipers,” he added.

The Al Shabaab were using children as human shields.

“We harassed the fighters with endless gunfire to force them to come out of their hiding. By evening, we had fully captured the university,” said Obbo.

As soldiers rejoiced over the victory, an Al Shabaab fighter emerged from his hideout and shot dead one of the UPDF soldiers.

“It was a painful loss. You have done it all. After feeling it’s over, you lose one of your own. It was a somber mood. Mop-ups are dangerous. The Al Shabaab fighters always want to die with someone. Our soldier was so skilled,” recalled Obbo.

The lethal Al Shabaab militant was captured by UPDF before being handed over to Somalia’s intelligence agency.

Other militants fled the campus.

On March 12, 2012, UPDF moved in to capture Masilah – another base of the Al-Qaeda-linked terrorists.

UPDF turned a fabrication workshop into a command centre.

The soldiers hid in a vegetation as they focused on the battlefield.

At 7:00pm, the soldiers heard a loud explosion.

A Lieutenant sustained facial injuries from the fragments before being rushed to the airport and flown to neighbouring Kenya’s capital Nairobi (Aga Khan Hospital) for treatment.

AMISOM has fast jets at the airport in Mogadishu which are used to evacuate wounded soldiers to Nairobi. The flight lasts less than an hour.

The endless attacks by Al Shabaab underscored the challenges UPDF-led forces would face in their war on Al Shabaab.

The party had just started. It was high time UPDF started planning for massive military operations.

Operation Free Shabelle

In March 2012, commanders from Uganda and Burundi started holding meetings at Mogadishu stadium which had been liberated. Commanders at all levels participated in the meetings.

For two months, the commanders assessed many options as they planned for battles, logistical supplies, intelligence gathering and evacuation of casualties. It’s here that the nitty-gritty of the war was planned, checked and counter checked.

Then Brigadier Paul Loketch, who was commanding the Ugandan contingent, decided to lock soldiers in the stadium.

There were two battle groups in the area.

Different military planners (civil military, medical etc) from Uganda and Burundi were locked in deliberate planning meetings for Operation Free Shabelle.

For example, AMISOM commanders and support staff were being asked what they could offer. Loketch ordered for joint military rehearsals between Ugandan, Burundian and Somali forces.

Multiple officials whom we talked to for this story said this rehearsal was important to avoid friendly fire.

The exercises also enabled combatants and their superiors to each other’s strengths and weaknesses before conducting a large scale operation.

A joint force of 7,000 battle-hardened soldiers was rolled out for the Operation Free Shabelle to bring security and economic revival to the 400,000 people of the Afgoye Corridor and beyond in the Lower Shabelle region of Somalia.

The soldiers were determined to seize territory from the Al-Qaeda-affiliated extremist group Al Shabaab.

They assessed how tanks would move; discussed orders at every level for non-commissioned officers to be familiar with commanders.

During this detailed planning, 30 tanks and 70 armoured motorized infantry fighting vehicles, amphibian vehicles, armoured personnel carriers and mambas were prepared for battle.

The Al Shabaab didn’t know the joint force was rehearsing for combat.

Afgooye had for a long time been a stronghold of Al Shabaab insurgents. The town was a strategic junction for routes to the north, west and south of Somalia.

The international humanitarian groups were watching.

Mistakes would most likely lead to a further displacement of internally displaced people (IDPs) from the corridor into Mogadishu and surrounding areas. The number of IDPs in the capital at the time were estimated at 184,000.

The battle was planned for May 20, 2012. Every soldier had to understand their roles properly. Every extra weapon or bullet was very important.

Because this was a joint operation of soldiers from different countries, combatants were told not to focus on their ranks.

For example, a Captain from any of the countries had to take orders from a Lieutenant from another if the latter was in command position.

A big force was left behind for tactical reasons.

At day-break (May 20), the joint force went for war in Afgooye.

Former combatants who participated in the battle but preferred anonymity to speak freely said they “went in kifuwa wazi (open chest) because we couldn’t conceal ourselves. We were so many in an open area and carrying logistics.”

As they moved to the battlefield, the Burundi force used the main road to Afgooye while UPDF went through the bush.

The plan was to confuse the enemy by creating an impression that it was the Burundi force preparing to attack Afgooye.

The UPDF wanted the enemy enveloped in a U-shaped formation.

However, there was a possibility of UPDF and Burundi soldiers being caught up in friendly fire.

That’s why the rehearsals at Mogadishu stadium were very important for the success of this military operation.

On the day of the battle, the UPDF were woken up by Al Shabaab gunfire. The fighters had slept just a few kilometres away from them. Asked why they had not gathered this critical information, an officer said the UPDF-led joint force lacked technical intelligence.

They couldn’t see far away due to lack of drones and satellites.

Every time the UPDF tried to move forward, Al Shabaab would shoot at them.

The then Chief of Defence Forces Gen Aronda Nyakairima was receiving information from the battlefield as he monitored the situation.

He was cautious of giving a green light to UPDF to open fire and move directly into enemy territory. He wanted to avoid mass casualties.

There was a deadlock.

From 6:00am when Al Shabaab started firing at UPDF, the Ugandan forces had only moved about five metres. Time check was 9:00am.

The UPDF hoped to capture Afgooye within two days and at worst – five days. So they were not willing to throw caution to the wind.

Loketch moves in

Commander Loketch was monitoring the firefight from the Base Camp at Mogadishu Stadium.

“What is going on?” Loketch asked the field commanders? “You are not moving!” he exclaimed. UPDF kept hitting Al Shabaab from a distance.

Loketch wanted quick results – crush the enemy and move on. He ordered armoured vehicles to escort him to the battlefield.

Loketch told the field commanders to create for him a route through which he could drive into the enemy territory. Many thought he was joking.

In a convoy of two mambas and other armoured assets, Loketch went straight into Al Shabaab’s zone. His fearlessness shocked everyone.

Shouting at the top of his voice, Loketch ordered gunners to strike deep into the heart of Al Shabaab’s territory.

UPDF soldiers started felling Al Shabaab fighters.

Loketch and his men were about 100 metres deep into Al Shabaab’s territory.

As the battle raged, Loketch jumped out of his vehicle and ordered, “Songa mbele, piga adui (move forward and attack the enemy).”

“So, we were like, this is a General (Loketch). If he is killed from here, we will get problems,” recalled one of the soldiers who took part in the battle.

“The fighting vehicles spread wide which allowed us to move in and fight. Loketch was leading us from the front and giving orders to attack relentlessly. His decision to break into the enemy lines was a game-changer. We were more inspired by his bravery and fought till the last man. Nobody thought about precautions anymore.”

The fighting ended at around 4:00pm. By sunset, UPDF had counted 300 dead bodies of Al Shabaab fighters.

Tired, the soldiers slept in the bush only to wake up at 6:00am to start fresh battles with Al Shabaab. On entering Afgooye, Al Shabaab was burning alive suspected collaborators of AMISOM.

At around 2:00pm, AMISOM forces crossed the Afgooye Bridge after deploying soldiers on either side of the river.

The battle for Afgooye was over but the bravery of Loketch and his men left an indelible mark in Somalia.

Loketch also won admiration of President Museveni who has since handed him top posts including commanding the airforce.

Loketch, now a Major General, was on Wednesday, December 16, 2020 appointed by President Museveni as Deputy Inspector General of Police, replacing Maj Gen Sabiiti Muzeeyi.

According to President Museveni, Loketch now has an uphill task –strengthening the capacity of Police to defeat civil uprisings.

“The Police force must be made to perform its duty of defending Ugandans from lawlessness, threat to life and property,” said Museveni after dropping Deputy IGP Sabiiti Muzeeyi.

“Any police person that does not do this must leave the police. There are thousands ready to replace them,” said the President.

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