The central location of the island nation of the Maldives in the western Indian Ocean, appeared to provide an ideal staging post for illicit arms shipments to the PLOTE (People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam) in Sri Lanka. It was a difficult period for them, as the LTTE (Liberation Tamil Tigers Eelam) was beginning to dominate the local scene in Eelam and were militarily much stronger.
PLOTE’s plan was to capture the islands and conduct their campaign from there. Taking a cue from previous mercenary-led coups in the Indian Ocean, two trawlers landed about 150 PLOTE mercenaries on the island at 0415 hours on <strong>3 November 1988</strong>.
Using rockets and grenades, the mercenaries led by <strong><span class=”Apple-style-span”>Abdullah Luthufi</span></strong> quickly overpowered the Maldivian Militia and attacked the President’s residence. <span class=”text_exposed_show”>Abdul Gayoom personally (President) requested military assistance from several countries, including India, the United States, Britain, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and ‘other’ Asian states.</span>. The Government of India were the first to respond.
<span class=”p-content”>India received a request at 5.30 in the morning for help. </span>
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At Agra, 44 squadron of IAF, then commanded by Anant Gopal Bewoor, got three IL-76s ready by 10 am and 50 Independent Parachute Brigade got 6 para regiment ready as the vanguard, and rest of the Brigade as back up, by 12 noon. While firm orders were awaited, 44 sqn crew and para commandos made plans on how to get to Hulhule, the island with a runway of just 6,800 feet (This runway is now being widened as Indian major GMR has taken over the airport for renovation). Would it be a landing, or a para-drop to capture the runway? Have the rebels attacked the airport? How strong were they, what weapons were they using?
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The Indian Cabinet approved the dispatch of forces at 1530 hrs on November 3rd.
Intelligence was very scanty — rebels were a determined bunch of about 250, armed with medium machine guns, rocket propelled grenades and some inputs spoke of surface to air missiles (SAMs).
At 3:30 pm a team came from Air and Army headquarters to finalise operation plans which was codenamed Cactus.It was concluded that a para-drop was too uncertain an option as the area for drop was an island just about 2 km long and not more than 500 m wide. “Dropping para-troopers by day on such a precise target was difficult enough, doing it at night was tactically unsound,” recalls Bewoor. It would have to be a direct landing on Hulhule, with the para-troopers fanning out to capture the complete island and facilitate build up.
The Indian Cabinet approved the dispatch of forces at 1530 hrs on November 3rd. Within 6 hours of cabinet approval, 50 Ind. Para Bde. launched the Maldives operation, codenamed Operation Cactus
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Two IL-76, the first commandeered by Bewoor, with 400 commandoes on board, took-off at 6:03 pm on November 3, 1988 — Operation Cactus was on its way.The two Il-76 airlifted the elements of the 50th Independent Parachute Brigade, commanded by Brig Farukh Bulsara, the 6th Battalion of the Parachute Regiment, and, the 17th Parachute Field Regiment from Agra Air Force Station and flew them non-stop over 2,000 kilometres (1,240 mi) to land them over the Malé International Airport on Hulhule Island.The Indian Army paratroopers arrived on Hulhule in nine hours after the appeal.
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The Indian paratroopers immediately secured the airfield, crossed over to Male using commandeered boats and rescued President Gayoom. Nineteen people reportedly died in the fighting, most of them mercenaries. The dead included two hostages killed by the mercenaries.
Hulhule island was secured by 10:45 pm. Boats with the President’s rescue party left for Male at just after midnight. While crossing the harbour they fired rockets and hit a passing ship, it was the MV Progress Light escaping with rebel leader <strong><span class=”Apple-style-span”>Abdullah Luthufi</span></strong> and Maldivian hostages.
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The ship was detected by an IL-38 May maritime recon aircraft, from the Indian Navy, and was then tracked by an Tu-142M Bear-F, another maritime recon aircraft of the Indian Navy, until 2 Indian Naval vessels, the INS Tir and INS Godavari were able to capture the absconding ship.
Two Sea King <span class=”skimlinks-unlinked”>Mk.42</span> choppers, from the one of the naval vessels, dropped depth charges to deter evasion. On the morning of 6 November 1988, the Indian Marine Strike Force (now known as the Marine Commando Force – MARCOS) commandos boarded the vessel and took control without any resistance from the mercenaries.
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In house-to-house searches, paratroopers captured some 30 rebels with lots of ammunition and explosives, another 70 rebels came-off Progress Light. It was time to tell the world that Indian Armed Forces, with the IL-76s of the Indian Air Force in the lead, had successfully defeated the coup in Maldives. President Gayoom spoke with Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi at about 4:30 am.
Operation Cactus was concluded without any casualties to India, except for an Indian soldier who shot himself in the foot. The 6 Para Bn. was to remain in Maldives for exactly one year after the coup attempt.
Additional Indian troops were transported by air and by sea from Cochin. Indian Air Force Mirages were deployed over Malé as a show of force.
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