‘Heavy losses’ as rebels rout SA soldiers in Bangui

2013-03-25 00:00

AT least six South African soldiers, and perhaps even as many as 20, were killed in the Central African Republic (CAR) when rebel forces took over the capital, Bangui, yesterday morning

“Heavy losses” were suffered, informed sources in defence force circles told sister newspaper Beeld.

Up to 40 soldiers may have been wounded, and late yesterday afternoon there were also reports that South African soldiers were missing or had been captured.

Two South African Hercules C-130 cargo aircraft left for Entebbe in Uganda yesterday. They are expected to fly the dead and wounded soldiers back to South Africa. A chartered Lear jet has also left for Entebbe, presumably with senior generals on board.

Top generals of the defence force’s joint operations centre held an emergency meeting in Pretoria yesterday afternoon, presumably to devise an action plan to try to resolve the desperate situation in which about 600 South African troops find themselves in the CAR.

The question is how the South African government will get out of this situation and how it will evacuate the remaining soldiers when the air force barely has three serviceable C-130 aircraft available.

Before the weekend, a contingent of South African paratroopers and special forces was deployed outside the city at a checkpoint on the main supply route to the capital.

However, on Saturday night the rebels had cut the South Africans off from the rest of the forces. This was when some of the South Africans are believed to have been shot dead or captured.

In a TV broadcast yesterday, the rebels said they regard the South African soldiers as mercenaries and would treat them accordingly.

It is thought that 200 additional soldiers were flown to Bangui from the Waterkloof air force base on Friday night, but apparently got no further than the airport. Military experts yesterday described the situation as “desperate”.

The South Africans were deployed in the CAR without any air support, which means they have been on their own since the rebels took control.

The CAR defence force’s single Mi-24 helicopter flew for a short time before the rebels shot it down.

South Africa has no helicopters available — the nearest ones are in the Democratic Republic of Congo as part of the United Nations peace deployment in the east of the country.

The South Africans were sent to the CAR on a peace-keeping mission at the end of December.

After the rebels had burst through the South African lines on the outskirts of the capital yesterday afternoon, they took control of the presidential palace.

Yesterday afternoon the defence force would only say that there had been casualties. It gave no figures.

Troops from France, which had deployed about 200 soldiers in the country to protect French interests, took control of the airport yesterday.

Military expert Helmoed-Römer Heitman said South Africa’s image as a regional leader had suffered a blow.

He criticised South Africa for leaving its troops without support, despite warnings about a rebel attack, and said Pretoria would probably have to ask the French for help to evacuate troops, if aircraft chartering companies would be prepared to fly to the CAR.

Heitman said the SA intervention was aimed precisely at preventing another rebel group from carrying out a coup.

“Now we are sitting with the embarrassment and that at the expense of many soldiers’ lives,” he added.

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