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2013-04-07 10:01

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Yesterday we buried 12 of the 13 soldiers killed in battle with rebels in Central Africa. Today we prepare to send more than 1?000 troops to a perilous new war in the DRC.

“We don’t want to kill our brothers from South Africa.”

This was the thinly veiled threat by Congolese rebel leader Bertrand Bisimwa as the bruised SA National Defence Force (SANDF) prepares to do battle again.

This time, the front is the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and the new enemy is Bisimwa and his M23 rebel group.

The SANDF is part of a multilateral regional force, which includes the armies of Mozambique, Malawi and Tanzania, and has the blessing of the UN Security Council.

Tons of weaponry were this week being flown in huge Russian cargo planes from Bloemfontein, Pretoria and Makhado airports to Entebbe in Uganda, close to the Congolese border, where South African forces are expected to be based.

Bisimwa and M23 have warned South Africa that they are in a different league to the Seleka rebels in the Central African Republic (CAR) who killed 13 South African soldiers.

“We say welcome (President Jacob) Zuma. M23 is not Seleka,” the group wrote on their official Twitter account on Thursday. On Friday, M23 tweeted: “If SA special Force attacks us; it will be catastrophic & apocalyptic.”

The rebel group accuses Zuma of sending South African troops to the DRC to protect his nephew Khulubuse’s oil interests.

Bisimwa spoke to City Press’ sister newspaper, Rapport, from the DRC yesterday. He said it would be a grave mistake for the SANDF to attack them.

“My message is we are fighting for peace and for good governance in our country. There is a letter I wrote to Parliament and the people of South Africa to ask them not to come and kill their brothers here because we are all fighting for good governance in Africa.

“We don’t want to kill our brothers from South Africa. We are asking them to support peace in Congo, not to come to fight,” said Bisimwa.

Asked how he would react if South African troops were to attack M23, he said: “We will defend ourselves and our positions.

But we will not attack them if they don’t attack us.

“We have time to negotiate in Kampala (negotiations started in January)?.?.?.?We understand the DRC will also be there.

“Our people in Congo don’t like war in their country, just like in South Africa.”

M23 are regarded as new-generation rebels and are active on social media platforms.

They are the region’s most feared group and, according to experts, have rocket launchers, 37mm anti-aircraft weapons and other “dangerous armoury”.

They top the list of rebel groups being targeted by the UN Security Council, which authorised an “intervention brigade” on March 28 to “neutralise” armed forces in the eastern DRC.

This was a dramatic change from the UN’s peace mandate in the past, which only allowed soldiers to shoot back when they were being shot at.

In expectation of South Africa’s deployment to the DRC, which could happen as soon as the end of April, masses of military equipment, including helicopters, were transported to Entebbe this week.

The defence force hired Russian cargo jets – including a huge Ilyushin II-76, registered to Belarusian company TransAVIAExport, and an Antonov 124 – to transport the weaponry.

An Ilyushun II-76 pictured above) was photographed at Air Force Base Waterkloof last Thursday.

It was unclear whether soldiers were also aboard the 20 flights to Entebbe.

One defence source said “special forces” were taken to Uganda, but this was disputed by other reports.

Beeld reported that the cost of the transportation alone could be more than R300?million and that Gripen fighter jets were also sent to Entebbe.

More than a thousand South African troops are expected to be deployed to the DRC.

– Additional reporting by Adriaan Basson

A Congo expert with close ties to the rebel leaders told City Press that South Africa underestimated M23.

“If they (the South Africans) think they will go out into the hills and annihilate these guys, they’re f*****g crazy.

“If an army goes in, which does not know the terrain or the politics, is overconfident and is itself not combat equipped for these kind of operations, they’re going to be kicked. If South African special forces could not keep Seleka at bay – not nearly as coherent a target as M23 – how are they going to defeat M23, which are in their own back yard?”

With the absence of a plan for what will happen after the attack, the mission is doomed to fail, “just like many similarly structured American missions in Iraq and Afghanistan”.

Sultani Makenga, M23’s commander, is well-trained and has helped to overthrow two governments in the area – the Rwandan government in 1994 and the regime of Mobutu Sese Seko, in the then Zaire, in 1996.

Defence analyst Helmut Heitman added: “What worries me is that M23 have some rocket launchers and they captured twin-barrel 37mm anti-aircraft weapons from the Congolese army. They have dangerous weapons.

But if we have a good commander, we will do a good job.

“We need to make sure we have good intelligence before we go somewhere. Our troops should be better armed and equipped. After that (CAR fight), no rebel troops will want to fight South Africa.”

A defence force source warned about “loss of life” among our troops because the Congolese rebels know the area better. “But we have the advantage of air support.”

According to sources with knowledge of the mission, two Rooivalk attack helicopters were among the hundreds of tons of equipment flown to Entebbe.

An Institute for Security Studies conflict analyst, David Zounmenou, said M23’s recent loss of Rwandan war veteran Bosco Ntaganda (who surrendered himself to the International Criminal Court), along with military support from Rwanda, may mean M23 is “less dangerous than we think”.

Zounmenou says he expects a deployment at the end of April. An SANDF spokesperson declined to confirm this yesterday.

– Additional reporting by Sabelo Ndlangisa

Entebbe, Uganda

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