South African soldiers head back to CAR

2014-08-03 15:00

South African soldiers could find themselves back on the battlefields of the Central African Republic (CAR) as early as October as part of an African Union (AU) rapid response force.

The SA National Defence Force (SANDF) will take the first turn to be on standby for deployment as part of the AU’s African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises (ACIRC) and the CAR has been identified as a conflict hot spot that urgently needs intervention.

It has also emerged that the controversial US Africa Command (Africom) will help the ACIRC with equipment and possibly transport because most of the continent’s armies that will participate are short of funds.

This issue is set to be finalised at the US-Africa Leaders Summit, which will take place in Washington, DC, on Wednesday, said a South African government official.

The ACIRC was championed by President Jacob Zuma last year as an interim measure for the continent until the African Standby Force is fully operational.

At a meeting in Pretoria in November, Zuma emphasised the need for the continent to find “African solutions to African problems”.

“Zuma did raise the ACIRC with [President Barack] Obama during his visit here last year, so it will certainly come up in the discussions,” said a government official who isn’t authorised to speak officially on the matter.

“The issue is to what extent the US can assist, perhaps in terms of resources, but as far as we’re concerned it is an African initiative and should be run by Africans.”

Africom’s press office confirmed it was helping Africa in its home-grown rapid response efforts, but said this “is done mainly through our bilateral security cooperation relationships with the individual African countries that have pledged forces”.

It emphasised that this support was not in the form of forces.

However, sources close to the AU said there were disagreements between countries in the continental body about the ACIRC and the extent to which non-African forces should be involved.

Sivuyile Bam, the head of the AU’s peace support operations division, said Africom’s support of the ACIRC was not yet officially confirmed, “but pronouncements by member states are not encouraging [Africom’s involvement]”.

“They are saying no matter how poorly equipped we are, it will be our force,” said Bam.

South Africa, Algeria, Angola, Burkina Faso, Chad, Egypt, Senegal, Uganda, Sudan, Tanzania, Niger, Benin, Cameroon and Rwanda have pledged forces, while Ethiopia has yet to sign on.

Nigeria is notably absent, but has said its own internal troubles and tensions ahead of next year’s elections have prevented it from committing to the force.

Each country will have its turn to be on standby and must be deployed by the AU.

The SANDF will be on duty from October and staff are scrambling for its reinforced brigade to be ready for AU inspection by the end of next month.

The SANDF promised City Press a briefing but cancelled at short notice.

André Roux, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, said money was key to the success of any interventions by the rapid intervention force.

The force will consist of at least 1?000 soldiers and be comprised along lines similar to the UN intervention brigade that is in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

All preparations are being done on the SANDF’s already tight operational budget with no indication if it will be reimbursed and if so, by whom, said Roux.

“The main problem for the SANDF at the moment is the air force cannot provide airlifts for the force and that is where Africom will be able to assist.

“The alternative is to deploy by sea, but this can take months. The navy also cannot provide the necessary vessels for a deployment of this magnitude, so even ships will have to be either provided by another country or rented,” he said.

The details of the exact composition of the force’s air support are sketchy.

A lack of air support was one of the reasons the SANDF suffered so many casualties in the CAR last year where 15 soldiers died.

The force will be vastly different in composition to that of a typical peacekeeping deployment in that conventional war-fighting equipment will form the nucleus of the group.

Roux said the broad outline of the force was no secret. It will consist of roughly four companies of soldiers and two of them will be strengthened with armoured personnel carriers like Casspirs.

Special forces and an intelligence field group will feed through the necessary information to the battle commanders.

Fire support coordination officers will move with the troops to direct attacks and fire.

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