Fleeing CAR not an option – SANDF chief

2013-03-25 14:19

Fleeing the war-torn Central African Republic was not an option for any of the remaining SA National Defence Force (SANDF) troops, chief of the SA National Defence Force General Solly Shoke has said.

“It’s not for me to decide whether the troops will come back home. We are soldiers. For us, running away is not an option,” said Shoke when asked whether there were any plans to bring the soldiers back home.

He added they can only leave if ordered to do so by the South African government.

Shoke was briefing the media about the deaths of 13 SANDF soldiers who died at the hands of the Seleka rebel group after being ambushed on Friday.

All 27 injured soldiers were back home receiving treatment at the 1 Military Hospital in Pretoria and search and rescue operations were still on for one soldier who went missing during the battle.

On more than two occasions, Shoke said that there was no option for the soldiers but to stay in the CAR and fulfil their mission to train that country’s soldiers.

He said the fighting ensued on Friday after South African troops, who are in the country training the CAR defence force, went to conduct a “reconnaissance mission” near their training base in the outskirts of the capital, Bangui.

“The SANDF returned fire to protect themselves and their equipment. We did not want our weapons and equipment to fall into the hands of rebels.

“On Saturday, the SANDF came under attack from the rebels on the outskirts of Bangui. The SANDF fighting force of about 200 members faced a rebel force of more than 3 000 that advanced towards Bangui on two main axes. This was a high-tempo battle that took (between) nine hours (and) more than 13 hours,” said Shoke.

The fighting continued into Saturday night, said Shoke, and yesterday the rebels indicated that they wanted a ceasefire and an “easy” truce followed.

Shoke said afterwards some rebels approached their gates, holding a white flag to signal that they were peaceful, and apologised for firing at the South Africans.

“Those who were slightly injured were given medical attention within the mission area and were able to carry on with their responsibilities. The rest of the force that is in CAR is in a good state and is receiving all the support that they deserve,” said Shoke.

South Africa and the CAR government had entered into an agreement to train that country’s soldiers in 2007 and more troops were sent by South Africa in December last year to protect South African soldiers after the rebels threatened to attack and overthrow the CAR government.

He said the situation in the CAR became worse after 19 March when five ministers of the national unity government were held “hostage” in Sibut by the rebels, practically ending the unity government.

Shoke urged the public to give their full support to the troops in that country and praised the soldiers for holding off more than 3 000 “well-armed” rebels.

“Only God knows what will happen next but there’s a ceasefire now. Until there’s clarity on the political situation, we are told there’s no government there now. We’ll wait and see, but we will be there on the ground. We were not there to fight a war but to protect our materiel. We are proud of our soldiers. They carried our flag high and protected our base. I want to praise the SANDF members for having conducted themselves valiantly in the face of overwhelming opposition,” said Shoke, who called on the public and political parties to give support to the families of soldiers who had passed away.

CAR President Francois Bozize is said to have fled the country when the rebels took over Bangui at the weekend.

Shoke said they were cooperating with the French troops who are keeping the peace in that country.

He said South African troops will remain in the CAR until ordered otherwise, because there was an existing 2007 deal signed with the CAR government.

A peace deal between Bozize and the Seleka rebel group, signed in January, is in tatters according to observers, after the weekend’s attack on Bangui by rebels accusing Bozize of reneging on the peace deal.

Meanwhile, the DA has called for a parliamentary inquiry into the fighting and recent deaths in the CAR and whether President Jacob Zuma authorised the deployment of the SANDF against the advice of the Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula.

DA Shadow Minister of Defence and Military Veterans David Maynier said the questionable deployment of the troops by Zuma early this year was “disastrous” from the beginning.

Maynier questioned why the SANDF was deployed, in terms of a memorandum of understanding between South Africa and the CAR, rather than a mandate from the UN or the African Union.

He expressed condolences to the families of the troops but questioned the entire operation.

The DA said a multiparty ad hoc parliamentary committee should be appointed to ascertain why the defence force was deployed, “in the middle of what amounted to a civil war, with so little military support”.

“There were no helicopter gunships to provide air support to SANDF soldiers or transport aircraft to evacuate SANDF soldiers from the CAR,” said Maynier.

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