Books

When an Air India Plane was Hijacked by Mercenaries in Seychelles

An excerpt from Ricochets: From Gordonstoun to Africa’s Wars: The Life of Mercenary Soldier Peter Duffy.

In November 1981, Capt Umesh Saxena, piloting an Air India plane, landed in Seychelles in the middle of a counter coup attempt to overthrow President Albert Rene. The plane had come from Zimbabwe and was on its way to Bombay. The airport was locked down due to a battle between the security forces and the mercenaries. A simple plan to enter the country through immigration had gone horribly wrong.

The mercenaries, under the command of Col “Mad Mike” Hoare and his second in command Peter Duffy, entered the plane and got Capt Saxena to fly to South Africa, which had no diplomatic relations with India. Duffy continued to insist for years afterwards that there was no hijacking; the Natal Supreme Court did not agree with him and sentenced him to five years, though he was out after 21 months. A colourful character who had been to one of Britain’s premier public schools Gordonstoun and had been working in South Africa as a press photographer when he got involved in the counter coup plot, Duffy continued to live in Durban after being released. In October 2006, Duffy visited Saxena in his Mumbai home.

A new book on Duffy by South African journalist Graham Linscott has just been published, but even as plans were being made to launch it, news came on August 4 that Duffy had suddenly died. 

In this exclusive excerpt from Ricochets: From Gordonstoun to Africa’s Wars: The Life of Mercenary Soldier Peter Duffy, Linscott describes how a simple plan to enter Seychelles went awry.

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All was going according to plan. The Air Swaziland Fokker Friendship had landed without incident about midday. The Frothblowers had been through immigration without any problem. Now it was customs, and they passed in loose groups through the “nothing to declare” green gate. Their bags were already being stacked on mini-buses outside the terminal building, in batches depending which hotel they were booked for. The few passengers who were not part of the Frothblowers’ mission also made their way through.

One was a Seychellois Creole who had boarded in the Comores. He was returning from a holiday, resplendent in cream linen slacks and brightly coloured shirt. He seemed prett y pleased with himself. One of the customs officers signalled him to open his bag. The man protested, then complied. Reaching in, the customs officer pulled out a bunch of litchis, a tropical fruit the passenger had bought in the Comores but which it was illegal to bring into the Seychelles for reasons of plant disease control. The exchange between the passenger and the customs officer became heated. The customs man produced a copy of the regulations and began preparing some kind of document for a fine. The Seychellois exploded with rage.

“You do this to me because I am a Creole! You don’t do it to these other people!” He indicated the Frothblowers who were filing through.

At which another customs officer stopped Johan Fritz and asked him to open his bag. Duffy was next in line and went cold. Reaching into his own bag, he pulled out a rubber bathtub duck and squeaked it at the customs officer, hoping to distract him and disarm him. The officer ignored it as he felt around in the bag and found it obviously had a false bottom. He began pulling the bag apart. Duffy ran to the exit to where the bags were being piled on the minibuses.

“Get the bags down! I think we’ve been rumbled!”

He ran back, to see a customs officer rushing out of an office with an AK-47 with a wooden butt. The Frothblowers were all of them pulling out their weapons by now, clipping in the ammunition. All hell broke loose as they opened up and the customs officer with the rifle went down, wounded though not fatally. Duffy dived for cover as the shooting broke out. Beside him Fritz dropped stone dead, shot through the heart by a stray bullet from one of his own men. The firing quietened. The Frothblowers fanned out and took control of the entire terminal, which was barely defended. Seychellois airport staff were herded together and told to sit tight. Two Frothblowers went into the control tower and took over. The airport was secure but the danger came from the military barracks, not far away near the end of the airport runway, which were known to contain about two hundred Tanzanian troops. The alarm would certainly have been raised by now, by radio or telephone.

All this threatened disaster. The plan had been for the Frothblowers to infiltrate, settle in and only days later give cutting-edge support when the Seychellois themselves went into rebellion. Hoare decided on an immediate attack on the barracks, to seize the armoury and hopefully neutralise the Tanzanians as a force.

The advance party had come to the airport as incognito back-up, and when things went wrong Hoare ordered them into the mini-moke tourist vehicles they had brought with them for a full frontal attack on the barracks, the sooner the better. They set off and a brisk exchange of fire ensued at the gates of the barracks. But a nasty surprise lay in store. None of the advance party had noticed a 7.62mm anti-aircraft gun mounted just inside the barracks perimeter and this opened up on them to terrifying effect. They had to fall back for cover in the surrounding bush and Aubrey Brookes, a special forces man originally from Rhodesia, was badly wounded in the thigh. (He lost contact with his comrades and was eventually captured by the Seychellois).

The afternoon wore on. The light began to fail. The Frothblowers were in the stickiest of situations. They had the airport but nothing else. The well-armed Tanzanian force and the Seychellois army would soon move in. As darkness fell an armoured vehicle trundled down the road toward the terminal building. But the Frothblowers had anticipated such a thing and had strung a roadblock of civilian vehicles across the road. The armoured car’s occupants tried to smash their way through, to ride across the blockage but ended up seesawing on top of it, unable to move forward or backward or train the machinegun. At least that threat was neutralised. Then mortars began to whistle and crunch about the airfield, coming from the direction of the army barracks. Vehicles were moving on the airfield and the terminal and control tower came under sporadic fire. The Air Swaziland De Havilland, still parked there, was riddled with bullets and shrapnel, though it never caught fire.

Then another heavy vehicle was heard on the approach road. It turned out to be an armoured car, this time approaching just off-road. But it fared no better than the first. Its wheels started spinning in the soft sand, it was on its chassis, unable to move forward or back. The Frothblowers surrounded it. They slapped mud over its periscope, stood on top and rapped on the closed turret.

“Come out with your hands up!” They said it in English, French and Swahili. There was no response. “Come out or we’ll burn you out with petrol!” Still no response.

A bottle was found and filled with petrol. An improvised wick was inserted. The Molotov cocktail. They repeated the warning, rapping on the turret. There was still no response. “Right,” said Duffy. “Somebody give me a light.”

But nobody in the group smoked. Nobody had matches or a lighter. They rapped on the turret again. “Hang on a bit. We’re going to fetch some matches.”

Graham Linscott
Ricochets: From Gordonstoun to Africa’s Wars: The Life of Mercenary Soldier Peter Duffy
Nomapix, June 2017

If there was a vestige of grim humour in this situation, it evaporated when the matches were brought. The Molotov cocktail was flung at the armoured car, which was instantly enveloped in flame. It was burning inside as well, as the petrol seeped in and next thing the hatch burst open and an armed Tanzanian appeared and was cut down by automatic fire before he had the chance to even aim his weapon. Then two Seychellois came out slowly, hands in the air. They were terrified.

Duffy had them marched to the area of the terminal where Hoare had set up command HQ. They were interrogated at length, through an interpreter, as to the disposition of the Tanzanian troops, their numbers and their armaments. The Frothblowers still hoped to fight their way out of this one, igniting the rebellion which they had come to support. Eventually Hoare was satisfied that his prisoners had told him all they could.

“Thank you,” he said. “You may go now.” “Go?” They were absolutely astonished.

“Yes, go home. Tell everyone we are not here to attack the Seychellois people, we are here to liberate them.”

Unable to believe their luck, the two prisoners ran off into the night. The mortar fire and heavy machinegun fire were building up. Frontal attack seemed imminent. The Frothblowers were indeed in a sticky situation.

In the control tower, Vernon Prinsloo, an ex-Rhodesian who had been national light-heavyweight boxing champion, sat with the Seychellois flight controller as mortar shell bursts and gunfire punctuated the night about the airfield. The controller had a serious attack of the jitters and spent much of the time beneath his desk. Then suddenly the radio crackled into life. It was an Air India flight from Harare, Zimbabwe, bound for Bombay, seeking permission to land. Mahe was a refuelling stop. This raised a moral problem. The aircraft could hardly be encouraged to land in the midst of a battle for control of the airport. Yet Prinsloo could not be totally explicit about the problem; it would have been radioed instantly about the world and the counter-coup attempt – already severely compromised – would be condemned internationally. Prinsloo advised against landing. The Air India flight should go on to Mauritius instead.

Then the Air India captain did something Duffy and his companions find puzzling to this day. He put the aircraft into a holding pattern for a good 50 minutes, burning up fuel while he discussed the position with the control tower, until eventually he had no option other than to land. Meanwhile, the Tanzanians and Seychellois army naturally presumed the mystery aircraft to be carrying reinforcements for the invaders and were ready to shoot at it with everything they had. In fact the aircraft carried civilians, including several VIPs in the Zimbabwean government, who were no doubt alarmed by the delay in landing but had no idea quite how precarious their position was. Nor did the Air India captain, Irmish (sic) Saxena – or Colonel Hoare and the Frothblowers for that matter – know that at least one truck was standing on the runway.

Captain Saxena decided to land. As he approached, the Tanzanians did have the decency to fire two red flares, warning him to abort. But he came in anyway, tracers arcing wildly but inaccurately after his aircraft as it touched down in the night. There was a sickening bang as a parked truck caught a trim baffle near the undercarriage and tore it off, but the lurching aircraft managed to stay on course and slow, the engines screeching in reverse thrust. Three feet closer to the undercarriage and the aircraft would certainly have cartwheeled, killing everyone on board.

As Colonel Hoare watched from the terminal, he said to Duffy: “If anything happens to that plane, we’ll get the blame.” But the gods were on the side of the passengers and aircrew. The Boeing 707 taxied into position, engines still screaming, and one of the Frothblowers drove Duffy out to it on the mobile gangway. A door opened and a figure appeared. Duffy was at the top of the steps, his AK-47 slung over his shoulder.

“Are you the captain?” He had to cup his hands and yell above the still-screaming engines.

“I’m the first officer.”

“I need to speak to the captain.”

“Come in.”

Duffy was led to the flight deck where he was introduced to Saxena. He explained the situation. The Air India flight had flown into an attempted counter-coup. Control of the airport was still being contested. Saxena, who had once been an officer in the Indian Air Force, asked if he could meet Hoare. He, the first officer and the navigator were driven to the terminal.

“Why did you land the aircraft?” Hoare asked as they were introduced. He never did get a satisfactory answer. They discussed the options, which were precious few. Saxena said he wanted to leave first thing next morning after refuelling. But the mortar barrage was intensifying. He changed his mind. He would refuel right away and take off as soon as possible.

But how could he take a passenger aircraft through the hell of tracer bullets and shrapnel that was developing outside? Could a cease-fire be negotiated? Dozens of Seychellois airport officials were still there under guard, and somebody was found to telephone the presidency and put Captain Saxena on the line. An astonishing dialogue followed between President Albert Rene and Saxena, who explained that this was a civilian flight that carried some senior Zimbabwean political figures. It had absolutely no connection with the coup attempt, of which he had only just been informed.

Rene considered and hedged. Then he agreed to order the troops to cease hostilities until the Air India flight had taken off. But this should happen as soon as possible. And, he insisted, nobody else should be taken. Saxena agreed.

The barrage went quiet. Duffy got hold of two Seychellois airport operatives to set up the complicated refuelling process. He drove them out to the fuel tanks for the first step in the operation, using an airport runabout vehicle but with the lights switched off just in case, leaning out and shining the way with a torch. But all remained quiet. The fuel line was connected up to the Boeing’s tanks and the fuel started pumping. Duffy got into conversation with the two technicians, who were friendly and totally co-operative. He got the impression they rather approved of any attempt to oust Rene. The tanks were now full. One of the technicians thrust a requisition book at him.

“Can you sign for the fuel, please?”

“Oh, certainly.” Duffy signed with a flourish: “Lieutenant-General Mickey Mouse.”

Elsewhere, Captain Saxena and his officers had been busy. They took a drive down the runway to make sure it was clear. They dragged out of the way the truck that had torn off the stabiliser trim. The Tanzanians were observing the truce. The aircraft was now ready to fly. The stabiliser trim was not essential to take-off and flight.

Back in the terminal, Saxena spoke to Hoare. “I don’t want to know how many men are in your group. That’s your business. But I can carry an extra 50 passengers.”

This was a way out. Hoare and Duffy considered. But the flight was to Bombay. South Africa at that stage had no diplomatic relations with India because of apartheid. Many of the Frothblowers were former Rhodesian special forces and current South African special forces personnel. They had South African travel documents. They would not be welcome in Bombay. South Africa was another option, in spite of the lack of diplomatic relations. Saxena agreed to fly them there.

This is, of course, Duffy’s account of what happened. In the subsequent air piracy trial the Natal Supreme Court was to take a different view: that the aircraft had been diverted to Durban under duress. Duffy is adamant that no weapon was ever pointed at anyone; no threat was ever made. Saxena made the offer out of humanitarian recognition of the Frothblowers’ predicament. In Duffy’s support, one of Saxena’s officers did tell a radio station that the incident had been not so much a “hijacking” as a “commandeering” (though a court of law would probably see no distinction). Saxena and Duffy are firm friends to this day. Duffy flew to India (at great personal risk) to support and promote Saxena when he wrote his own account of the incident. Every Christmas he gets a telephone call from Saxena. Every Diwali Saxena gets a telephone call from him. Could it be that (perfectly understandable) international strictures against air piracy in this case overrode some human sympathy and decency?

Whatever the case, about 1 am next morning the Air India flight took off, the body of Johan Fritz in the cargo hold, the Frothblowers’ weapons tied up on the floor in a blanket. The Tanzanians held their fire, yet at one stage Duffy thought he heard the sound of bullets slapping the fuselage. But it was only the Frothblowers exultantly giving the parabat clap; many passengers joined in, relieved to be out of it. Drinks were served; the stewardesses refused payment. During the flight, a blonde girl from Zimbabwe and one of the mercenaries struck up such a rapport that they ended up joining the mile-high club. If this was a hijacking, it was a most strange one.

Excerpted from Ricochets: From Gordonstoun to Africa’s Wars by Graham Linscott. With permission from the author