Operation Thunderbolt (1997)

Operation Thunderbolt (9 March – late April 1997) was the codename for a military offensive by the South Sudanese SPLA rebel group and its allies during the Second Sudanese Civil War. The operation aimed at conquering several towns in Western and Central Equatoria, most importantly Yei, which served as strongholds for the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and helped the Sudanese government to supply its allies, the Ugandan insurgents of the WNBF and UNRF (II) based in Zaire. These pro-Sudanese forces were defeated and driven from Zaire by the SPLA and its allies, namely Uganda and the AFDL, in course of the First Congo War, thus allowing the SPLA launch Operation Thunderbolt from the Zairian side of the border. Covertly supported by expeditionary forces from Uganda, Ethiopia, and Eritrea, the SPLA's offensive was a major success, with several SAF garrison towns falling to the South Sudanese rebels in a matter of days. Yei was encircled and put under siege on 11 March 1997. At the same time, a large group of WNBF fighters as well as SAF, FAZ, and ex-Rwandan Armed Forces soldiers was trying to escape from Zaire to Yei. The column was ambushed and destroyed by the SPLA, allowing it to capture Yei shortly afterward. Following this victory, the South Sudanese rebels continued their offensive until late April, capturing several other towns in Equatoria and preparing further anti-government campaigns.

Operation Thunderbolt (1997)
Part of the Second Sudanese Civil War and the First Congo War
Date9 March – late April 1997
Result Major SPLA victory
Most of Western and Central Equatoria is captured by the SPLA
Rwanda Ex-FAR
Ethiopia Ethiopia
Commanders and leaders
Unidentified major general[1]
Juma Oris (WIA) (WNBF)
Abdulatif Tiyua (POW) (WNBF)
Rwanda Jean-Marie Magabo (POW) (Ex-FAR)
Joseph Kony (LRA/LSA)
Salva Kiir Mayardit
James Hoth Mai
Yoweri Museveni
Salim Saleh
Katumba Wamala
James Kazini
Ethiopia Unidentified Ethiopian commanders
Units involved


  • Equatoria garrisons
FAZ remnants


  • 23rd Battalion
Ethiopia Ethiopian Army
Eritrean Army
Thousands ~12,000
Casualties and losses
Sudan: thousands killed or wounded; thousands captured
WNBF: at least 800 killed, 1,000 captured
UNRF (II): Heavy
Many civilians displaced

The success of Operation Thunderbolt significantly strengthened the SPLA in Western Equatoria, and weakened the Sudanese government's control over its southern territories. The South Sudanese rebels were thus able to expand their operations, and raised global awareness for their cause. Furthermore, the WNBF and UNRF (II) suffered heavy losses during the offensive. Taken together with their defeats in the First Congo War, they were permanently weakened, and in case of the WNBF, effectively defeated as active fighting forces.

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