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CAR: South African soldiers speak of bravery and uncertainty

CAR: South African soldiers speak of bravery and uncertainty

Reinforcements for the South African military presence in the Central African Republic are already on their way. With South Africa showing little inclination to withdraw from the country, fears of further casualties are escalating. By DE WET POTGIETER, GREG NICOLSON, KHADIJA PATEL and SHASHA MODIKE.

The status of the South African troops in Bangui remains unclear as looters and gunmen roam the streets of Central African Republic’s capital, Bangui. Rebel leaders and regional peacekeepers are said to be battling to restore order after the ousting of President Francois Bozize last weekend. And in the chaos, little is known of what exactly the South African troops stationed there are doing now. Even the events surrounding the battle that cost South Africa 13 lives last Saturday remain murky.

Twenty-eight South African soldiers who were wounded in the battle are currently being treated at the 1 Military Hospital in Pretoria. While security around the hospital has been tightened since the arrival of the wounded soldiers, a Daily Maverick source, who was able to breach security, heard from wounded soldiers that they believed South African troops were being used to further ulterior motives in the Central African Republic (CAR).

Soldiers say that since January, South African troops were not involved in any military training – the original aim of the South African military presence in the country. That could be understood in the greater context of the rebel insurgency that emerged last December making gains against Bozize. Soldiers say they were clearly instructed that they were there to protect other South Africans, their assets and equipment as well as the SANDF equipment deployed in the CAR.

They say they were 50km outside the capital when they were attacked last weekend. Significantly, wounded soldiers said they had also been attacked last Friday. Before Saturday’s major attack by the rebels, they say they were also attacked the previous day by CAR government troops trying to enact their own little coup. Soldiers say they were able to repel this attack.

The Central African army is under-financed, and its soldiers are said to lack equipment and motivation. Historically, CAR’s leaders have been wary of a strong army. Only the presidential guard, consisting of troops from Bozize’s own ethnic group, is described to have had real firepower. What has become of them in the current morass is anyone’s guess.

But while Bozize has turned up in Cameroon this week, it bears noting that he was actually guarded by soldiers from Chad until October 2012. The military co-operation agreement between South Africa and CAR also promised security and protection to Bozize from South African troops. What remains unclear is whether the South Africans were guarding Bozize in the absence of the Chadian troops.

There remain many unanswered questions about the battle, which mostly relate to what the South African soldiers actually were doing and where exactly they were stationed, since their position was attractive enough to warrant the attention of both the army and the Seleka rebels.

Outside the SANDF office in downtown Pretoria, meanwhile, Sergeant Alvin Tshuma looked emotionally drained when he was asked about the situation. He said they were “facing a difficult situation” but commanders had informed the department that more troops were being deployed.

Another sergeant, who didn’t want to be named, said, “It is true that our people are dying out there, even though there are not war engagements. It is a very difficult task trying to keep order with someone who is already shooting at you.”

The Defence Force members were reluctant to speak to to media, but one sergeant, who wanted also to remain anonymous, was more direct. “There are already troops that went (to the CAR) yesterday,” he said, which was confirmed by others the Daily Maverick spoke to. “Some troops are said to be going by tonight,” he continued. “The 44 Parachute Brigade in Bloemfontein is the one that went yesterday. The other troops are from Limpopo, the Braambos Military Base in Louis Trichardt (Makhado). It is expected to depart today, but we do not want war with them (the rebels in CAR). Rebels are not supposed to fight peacekeepers.”

Defence analyst Helmut Heitman believes South Africa’s troops fought valiantly. He says the decision to keep the troops in CAR will send a message to rebel movements across the continent that South Africans are not easily beaten. It’s a crucial factor considering the country’s other peacekeeping missions, he said. “If it’s badly handled we’ll turn a tactical victory into a strategic defeat,” he warned.

“Just leaving a small force there is a bit silly and pulling them out would be counterproductive,” said Heitman, speaking to Daily Maverick in his Pretoria home. His ideal response would be for South Africa to deploy two battalions and heavy equipment such as attack helicopters to support the force in CAR.

But that raises other problems, said Heitman. Firstly, considering the lack of transport, how would the troops get to the CAR? Secondly, who would take over after peace is secured? South Africa is already stretched with peacekeeping missions in the DRC and Darfur.

Considering those difficulties, Heitman said one battalion of 800-1,000 troops with heavy equipment should be sent to reinforce the troops and achieve stability on the premise that an African Union or United Nations force would then take over.

“It’s a catastrophic failure on the planning side,” said Heitman, when asked about the inability to airlift the troops out of the CAR. “You must be able to reinforce or withdraw,” he added. Heitman believes the South African troops are relatively safe after their strong performance against the rebels, but said if things go bad, those in Bangui can evacuate by getting a boat south down the river.

Other analysts are not as confident of South Africa’s fortunes in the CAR. “This is complete disaster for South Africa,” Thierry Vircoulon, Central African specialist at the International Crisis Group, told Reuters. “They did not at all understand they were backing the wrong horse.” DM

Photo: People gather around a burnt Seleka Rebel truck in Begoua, 17 km (10 miles) from capital Bangui, in this still image taken from video, March 23, 2013. Rebels in Central African Republic seized control of the riverside capital Bangui after fierce fighting on Sunday, forcing President Francois Bozize to flee and raising fears of instability in the mineral-rich heart of Africa. REUTERS/Reuters TV


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