Top brass ignored warning

2013-03-26 00:00

“MISTAKES kill soldiers” — this adage proved true in Bangui at the weekend, when 13 SA National Defence Force (SANDF) troops were killed and 27 wounded near the Central African Republic (CAR) capital.

Informed sources said the fatal mistake was an “ill-supported and ill-considered mission” in the central African nation.

A serving general yesterday described the events as a watershed between political greed and “military malnutrition”.

Reports indicate that the SANDF leadership had known last week that the CAR mission was suicidal.

Senior officers had told their top brass that much, when a decision had to be made to send another 200 troops to reinforce the peace-keepers there.

They had apparently warned that situation was deteriorating in CAR.

Due to a shortage of funds, the SANDF had been battling to support its troops in Bangui logistically.

The medical support it sent apparently comprised one doctor with a first-aid back pack, said a source.

The South African soldiers often had to borrow vital equipment from the 150 French paratroopers, who were safeguarding France’s interests in Bangui.

However, the objections by the senior officers were ignored and 200 more troops were flown into Bangui on Friday night.

Moreover, when the battle was at its fiercest, the South Africans troops were on their own, said a source.

There was no sign of the Multinational Force of Central Africa (Fomac),which was supposed to have kept the rebels away from the capital.

Defence force chief General Solly Shoke said in Pretoria yesterday that the SANDF troops had acquitted themselves extremely well, if one took into account that the 3 000-strong rebel forces were heavily armed.

The South African protection force comprises about 250 paratroopers from 1 Parachute Battalion in Bloemfontein and special forces from 5 Reconnaissance Regiment in Phalaborwa.

A South African detachment drove into an ambush about one kilometre long during a reconnaissance operation on Friday afternoon.

The soldiers “shot themselves out of” the situation, but two of them were wounded.

According to the SANDF, the rebels struck again on Saturday.

They had heavy machine guns and mortars and were well organised.

The South Africans were guarding the base about eight kilometres out of Bangui — where they have been training CAR soldiers since 2007 — when the rebels opened fire on them .

Shoke said the “high-intensity gun battle” lasted for nine hours and ended only when the rebels raised a white flag.

Most of the South African deaths occurred in this battle. The wounded soldiers were flown to South Africa for medical treatment.

A soldier who was declared missing yesterday may be a badly burnt body that experts are yet to identify.

Shoke insisted that the South Africans were not in the CAR to provoke aggression, despite claims that they were helping to protect former President Francois Bozize and his palace.

Bozize has reportedly fled to Gbadolite in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Shoke said the rebels were of Arab origin and some of them had mentioned they were from Chad.

During the gun battle, the rebels moved around the South Africans and seized control inside the city.

The Fomac regional force, comprising soldiers from Chad, Gabon and Congo (Brazzaville), apparently opened the gates of the presidency in Bangui to the rebels when they arrived.

Shoke told the media in Pretoria yesterday that 13 South African soldiers were killed, 27 were injured and one was missing. But sister paper Beeld learnt last night that the total did not include six South African paratroopers who were deployed in CAR and were killed at the weekend.

The losses suffered in a single day at the weekend were the highest for the SANDF since 1994 and for years before that.

The deaths have plunged the defence force into diplomatic embarrassment in the region.

They have also highlighted serious shortcomings in the equipment and ability of the SANDF, which has had to manage on a shrinking budget for several years.

Yesterday, several air bases were placed on standby.

Shoke did not want to expand on possible reinforcements, except to say that the army was using everything it had to protect the soldiers’ lives.

He insisted that retreat was not an option for the remaining South Africans.

The troops would leave only if ordered to do so by the South African government.

Shoke said the rest of the force in CAR were in a good state and were receiving all the support they needed.

President Jacob Zuma said yesterday he would wait for the dust to settle before deciding whether to send more troops to CAR, reports Cobus Claassen.

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