EXCLUSIVE: SA troops 'held hostage' in Sudan over al-Bashir

Johannesburg - The Sudanese government of president Omar al-Bashir literally held a gun to South Africa’s head to secure his safe return to Khartoum.

Netwerk24 can reveal that about 800 South African soldiers in Darfur were held “hostage” by Sudanese troops when the drama around Al-Bashir’s possible arrest in South Africa escalated.

According to military experts, this effectively means Sudan blackmailed South Africa and the soldiers’ lives served as a guarantee for Al-Bashir’s safe return.

Only after Al-Bashir safely touched down in Khartoum on Monday, were Sudanese troops withdrawn. President Jacob Zuma is the commander-in-chief of the defence force.

'So scared'

“We were so scared – we were surrounded by soldiers. We handed out extra ammunition to all our troops in case they needed it,” said one South African soldier in Sudan on Tuesday.

The deployment of Sudanese troops and threats against South Africa started shortly after Al-Bashir left for the African Union summit in Sandton, Johannesburg. He arrived on Saturday night. Heavily armed Sudanese soldiers surrounded military bases in Kutum, Mellit, and Malha. South African troops were placed in a state of combat readiness.

“Vehicles approached our bases and the commander placed us on State 2 of readiness,” said another soldier. This meant all troops had to be in combat gear, fully armed, and positioned in bunkers and against embankments.

'Would have to surrender'

Another soldier said if the situation got out of hand, “we would have had to surrender to save our lives, because you can’t fight a country’s army with a poorly equipped battalion”.

The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) has been battling for years to get proper combat gear and armoured vehicles to its troops in Darfur. The delivery has consistently been blocked by the Sudanese government, which, on more than one occasion, prohibited South African flights from entering its airspace.

“I am so thankful that South Africa did not arrest Bashir. The battalion commander said after Bashir touched down safely in Khartoum, all the [Sudanese] troops were withdrawn. The calamity has returned to normal,” reads a message sent by a soldier in Darfur to his friends in South Africa.

About 1 400 South African soldiers are serving in Darfur as part of a combined African Union/United Nations peace mission (Unamid). The current group are from 8 SA Infantry Battalion in Upington.

Poorly equipped

At a briefing last week, SA army chief Lieutenant-General Vusi Masondo said the Sudanese troops and rebels in that country were much better equipped than the South Africans, which made it difficult to maintain order.

“Our nerves were shot and we were very relieved when the militants withdrew on Monday evening. We knew we were sitting ducks,” said a South African soldier.

Unamid said it was unaware of the situation.

Zuma’s spokesperson Harold Maloka referred all questions to the SANDF, which did not respond.

'Blatant intimidation'

Military expert Helmoed-Römer Heitman said if the events were true, it was blatant intimidation.

“Our troops in Darfur are already vulnerable. They’ve been led into traps numerous times and had their weapons confiscated.

“If there was a confrontation, I have no doubt that the South Africans would have returned in body bags. They have been deployed as peacekeepers, not as combat troops.

“If the threatening situation is confirmed, South Africa has no other option than to withdraw its troops from such an impossible situation,” Heitman said.

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