The Untold Story of a TPLF Hostage Crisis

August 15, 2021
Ethiopia
The following story is article version of a tweet shared on Aug 20 2021 based on accounts from US Embassy and State Department cables from the Jimmy Carter Administration declassified by the US National Archives and Records Administration in April 2014. All the cables can be accessed in chronological order here.

On October 31st, 1978 TPLF militants abducted an American helicopter pilot and triggered an international hostage crisis. What follows is the untold story of how the TPLF introduced itself to the United States [1] .


Northern Ethiopia faced a severe locust invasion in 1978. According to a June 1978 Washington Post article, "43 swarms [of locusts] have been spotted in Ethiopia" and locusts were devouring "8,000 to 34,000 tons [of vegetation] each day". The UN's Desert Locust Control Organization of Eastern Africa was at the forefront addressing the crisis and had a fleet of 9 aircraft shared between seven countries. One of these aircraft had been stranded near the Kola Tembien region for three months and required several repairs.

At the time, George William Krois, was a 36 year old American helicopter pilot and Canadian resident flying frequent locust control missions in Tigray. George worked for Viking Helicopter Ltd., a Canadian contractor performing services for the UN. On October 30th, Krois had flown two missions ferrying mechanics to repair a UN spray aircraft that had been grounded in Abiy Adi.

George William Krois with his Viking Helicopter.

According to an account given by Canadian Pilot Bill Waugh, a co-worker of Krois' at Viking Helicopter, wages for locals guarding the aircraft had been delayed for several days. Soon, locals guarding the grounded aircraft had began to grumble. Word soon started to spread of a third flight that would deliver their payments. TPLF bandits in the countryside heard these rumors and quickly moved to the area.

On the arrival of the third mission, TPLF gunmen charged the helicopter, held Krois under gunpoint and ordered him to reroute and fly to a TPLF-held location. The gunmen stole all the cash and also kidnapped four Ethiopian mechanics who arrived with Krois and instructed them to walk 70 kms on foot in the same direction. Krois and the TPLF bandits landed at a remote site and curious local peasants flocked toward the helicopter. TPLF told the peasants that the helicopter "was a gift from the Arabs and that there would be more" to come and loaded it on a truck and drove away.

Tigrayan Peasants flocking to George's Helicopter.

Tigrayan Elders Enraged at TPLF

In Abiy Adi, Tigrayans were enraged by the abduction, fearing the UN would suspend the highly effective Locust Control Program in their community. The head of the UN's Locust Control Program in Addis, a man by the name of Mulugetta Bizuneh heard the news of the abduction and immediately dispatched locals from Abiy Adi to search for the TPLF bandits in different directions, on foot, to try to contact the guerillas and secure the release of his staff.


After a few days of searching, on the 5th of November, large crowds of residents and church leaders finally found the TPLF bandits in the countryside. The crowd, who had travelled a long distance, demanded the TPLF release George Krois and the four Ethiopians.


The TPLF rebuffed their demands and told the crowd that the captives were "agents of the Ethiopian government". The crowds forcefully protested and argued that the captives were civil servants helping their community battle locust swarms.


When the uproar from the crowd wouldn't relent, the TPLF agreed to hold a detailed deliberation under the condition that church leaders leave. The crowds strongly objected. Then TPLF leaders began a one hour lecture explaining their discomfort with crosses and church leaders.  

Ethiopian Orthodox Church Leader with a Cross.


At last, the sides agreed to have a meeting in which church leaders were cast to one side and villagers to another. The TPLF, then proceeded to deliver another two hour lecture, this time about the goal of its movement as described in its manifesto. The crowd, then became very agitated.


The meeting adjourned without a discussion on the captives. The evening arrived and the frustrated crowd spent the night in the cold outdoors. The next morning the people were restless and hungry. And yet again the TPLF subjected them to another three hours of indoctrination.


After testing the limit of the crowd's patience, on November 7th, the TPLF released the four Ethiopian detainees.George Krois, the American pilot, was nowhere to be found. The TPLF said he would be released "very soon" and sent the crowd and Ethiopian captives back to Abiy Adi.

The Americans and Canadians Informed


By this time, UN Locust Control Head, Mulugeta informed the US Ambassador Fred Chapin of Krois' abduction. Ambassador Chapin dispatched a cable to US Secretary of State Cyrus Vance to officially notify the State Department of the abduction of an American citizen by the TPLF.

Fred Chapin, left,(Ambassador to Ethiopia) and Cyrus Vance, right Secretary of State 1977 - 80


Secretary Vance then promptly made plans to notify Krois' father in California. Unfamiliar with the TPLF bandits at this time, he sent a cable back to Ambassador Chapin inquiring: if they "could. make a point that any publicity TPLF garners from the kidnapping would be bad? Or would TPLF care as long as they got publicity?"


Ambassador Chapin received the cable and looped in the Canadians which had a stake in Krois' release since Krois was a Canadian resident with a wife in Toronto.

Both determined to coordinate plans and "to hold the story as tightly as possible" to starve the TPLF of any publicity.

American Call on a Friend


Lacking a direct point of contact with the TPLF, the American Ambassador in Sudan, Donald Bergus, appealed to the Sudanese Government of Jaafar Nimeiry. Nimeiry, a close US and Egyptian ally, was providing financial support and a headquarters in Khartoum to the TPLF[3].

Jaafar Nimeiry (left), Sudanese President 1971-85, Donald Bergus (right) US Ambassador to Sudan, 1977-80


Ambassador Bergus phoned General Omar Al-Tayeb, head of the Sudanese State Security under Nimeiry, and pressed him to approach TPLF representatives in Khartoum to negotiate Krois' release. After meeting TPLF reps in Khartoum, General Omar reported: "TPLF want money or material assistance of some kind before release of Krois".

Omar told TPLF of US policy prohibiting ransom of any kind for release of hostages and that any donation would be made "under the table".


Ambassador Bergus then sent a cable to the State Department to update Secretary of State Vance about the TPLF's demands as relayed by General Omar. Bergus then waited for next steps from the State Department.

Meanwhile, the Canadians also hatched a plan of their own.

The Canadians Call on a Friend


The Canadian strategy involved reaching out to the British which dealt with TPLF terrorists two years earlier when they ambushed and fired bullets on a Land Rover of a British family, including a 5 and 8 year old, and took the family hostage for 3 months demanding $1M in ransom[2].

Sep 7 1978 NY Times Article about abduction of British Family by TPLF.


British officials reached out to their TPLF contacts and reported the following:  

"An official of the British embassy who negotiated Tyler family release was telephoned by TPLF rep late this morning. He refused to meet TPLF at embassy but instead set up meeting this evening".


After meeting in secret with the TPLF rep, the British official notified the Canadians that the rep said unless a ransom was given "Krois would continue to be held to draw attention to the TPLF cause" and that "his group was immune to pressure applied by governments".


Back in Washington, Secretary Vance emphatically rejected the TPLF ransom demand, and updated his ambassadors in Addis and Khartoum affirming that "there is no question of USG paying ransom and TPLF will only damage its public image by continuing to hold innocents hostage".


He added, "we should use as many channels as possible to bring pressure to bear on TPLF, embassy should therefore again ask governments to make another strong effort to persuade TPLF to release Krois immediately and without condition".


TPLF reps would not budge. They warned a French contact "Krois is well but that he will be kept as long as necessary 'six months or a year' to bring western interlocutors to their senses".

The contact also noted that although a clear ransom demand had not been made yet, "figure being contemplated is thought to be approximately $100,000 or $200,000 in cash".

TPLF Tries to Indoctrinate Krois' Wife


Now early one morning, TPLF reps approached a Red Cross official  in Khartoum by the name of Fred Isler and demanded that he deliver three letters [4] addressed to Mrs. Beverely Krois (George Krois' wife in Toronto) to the Canadian embassy to send to Mrs. Krois.


Isler accepted the first two letters which were letters from George to his wife describing his situation, but according to a mid-November cable, "Isler refused to accept a third letter which was a propagandistic explanation from TPLF to Mrs. Krois" justifying Krois' captivity".


Isler "told TPLF Krois was not a POW but a civilian who'd been kidnapped. He said @ICRC wouldn't be party to a case of kidnapping except to carry humane messages. TPLF then took back letter from Krois to his wife bec. they wanted it and their letter to reach her at same time."


In the propaganda letter Isler refused, TPLF wrote to Mrs. Krois "the inconvenience of one man for an indefinite period of time" is a worthwhile price to pay for "five million Tigreans".

They also complained, stating "for the last hundred years the Amhara nation dominated us".  


Though TPLF ultimately pulled back the letters, the gesture presumably was an attempt to demonstrate that they have matured into humane kidnappers. In 1976, a British man kidnapped by the TPLF remarked that he "had to suck water from cactuses to keep going" on a 500 mile march under armed TPLF guards.

Canadians Want UN Involved, Americans Unconvinced


By December, the one month mark of Krois' abduction had passed. US and Canadian officials were still no closer to securing Krois' release as when they had started.

The Canadians proposed that the UN Secretary General make a public appeal to the TPLF on humanitarian grounds.

Kurt Waldheim, UN Secretary General 1972 - 81


Ambassador Chapin and the Americans were unconvinced arguing "an appeal on humanitarian grounds would, in any case, fall on deaf ears. The TPLF has clearly shown itself to be a politically unsophisticated group, not concerned with the adverse nature of the publicity it might get."


In Washington, Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher had now taken over the Krois' file. (Christopher would become Secretary of State under Bill Clinton). Christopher was displeased with the Sudanese effort so far and called for more "aggressive" pressure against the Sudanese.

Deputy Secretary of State Christopher (under Jimmy Carter). SOS under Bill Clinton


Soon enough, the Sudanese feeling the heat, reassured the US Ambassador in Khartoum that the matter was now personally being handled by Sudanese President Nimeiry and promised renewed pressure would be applied on the TPLF leadership in Khartoum.


Sudanese authorities would then summon TPLF reps in Khartoum. What exactly happened next is unclear. The details of the exchange remain classified. It's possible the Sudanese threatened the TPLF with expulsion or the Eritreans who had leverage on the TPLF made them fold.


It's also unclear whether any of the TPLF's ransom demands were met "under the table" by the Sudanese officials. The Sudanese promised the TPLF a press conference in Khartoum and requested US officials send media reps to the press conference. The US would grudgingly accept.


After more than 2 months of a dizzying diplomatic frenzy and 70 days under TPLF captivity, George Krois' would finally be a free man on January 9 after the TPLF handed him to Sudanese authorities in Khartoum. A week later he boarded a flight to Toronto and reunited with his wife.

Jan 10 NY Times Article on release of George Krois


President Nimeiry received a letter of thanks from President Jimmy Carter for his efforts. Carter wrote: "I would like to express my gratitude for your government's efforts in bringing about the safe release of Mr. George William Krois by the Tigre Peoples Liberation Front".

Carter Falls, TPLF Terrorism Increases


Only a year later President Jimmy Carter would find himself confronting another hostage crisis, only this time one which he could not keep under wraps and would ultimately take down his Presidency.

Jimmy Carter Loses 1980 Election due in large part to his inability to handle Iran Hostage Crisis

Carter would go down, but TPLF terrorists were just getting started.


TPLF also got its promised press conference with western media and said "they were anxious to call attention of world opinion to plight of Tigrean people who were fighting a fascist government".

If this language sounds familiar, we don't need to look further than the recent words coming out of today's TPLF terrorists who have waged war on the country:


For the George Krois' kidnapping and more than a dozen other documented acts of international terrorism committed throughout the 70s and 80s,  the TPLF found itself listed as a Tier III terrorist organization under United States law.


Yet, despite their rocky beginning, the TPLF and the US would forge a closer relationship in the late 80s. Ethiopia would expell Ambassador Chapin and the Americans in July 1980 and the US wouldn't regain a foothold in the country until facilitating a TPLF takeover in 1991.

Today, once again, true to its terrorist roots, the TPLF, with American approval, is terrorizing the people of Tigray, Amhara, and Afar regions and holding them hostage while demanding a ransom of more than 100 million Ethiopians.

Notes

  1. The US had been aware of efforts to create a "Tigray Liberation Front" at least since April 1975, which is two months after TPLF's official founding.
  2. British Surgeon Lindsey Taylor was on vacation with his wife and his 8 and 5 year old children when TPLF gunmen ambushed his vehicle and kidnapped the family. This story on the Sunday Times recounts this event and also an addition TPLF kidnapping.
  3. Incidentally, just like today, in 1977-78 while Ethiopia was preoccupied with war with Somalia, Nimeiry's troops invaded fertile lands of Ethiopian farmers in Gonder and in later years, according to a statement by the Ethiopian Border Affairs Committee, TPLF leaders promised Neimery that they would abrogate the 1902 Border Treaty if they took power in Ethiopia.
  4. Here's the full content of the TPLF propaganda letter sent to Mrs. Krois.


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