SOUTH African soldiers backed by a heavily armed UN reaction force are preparing to take back an airport in the Democratic Republic of Congo that has been overrun by rebels.
The airport, near Goma, fell to M23 rebels last week. It is one of the main aerial transport links in that country and a vital supply point for thousands of UN peacekeepers in the eastern DRC.
South Africa has more than 1200 soldiers deployed in the eastern DRC province of North Kivu, where Goma is situated.
M23 rebels, who have been engaged in heavy fighting with DRC government forces, last week swarmed through the eastern DRC, taking several towns and causing tens of thousands of civilians to flee.
The South African plan to retake the airport was proposed as the rebels agreed on Tuesday to a conditional withdrawal from certain areas, creating a 20km neutral zone, in terms of a deal struck in Uganda.
The UN and residents said yesterday there were signs that the rebels were withdrawing from Goma.
The increase in tension coincides with news that a report by a Southern African Development Community (SADC) military team is nearing completion.
The report was drafted after the DRC government asked the SADC to send a military force to the region.
Lieutenant-General Derrick Mgwebi, chief of the SA National Defence Force’s joint operations, said South African soldiers were preparing to retake Goma’s airport.
“The airport is not safe and the UN has withdrawn all its aircraft, including SA Air Force helicopters, to the city of Bukavu.
“From here, we were operating secret resupply routes to ensure that our troops and other peacekeepers get ammunition.
“The UN has decided to retake the airport, with South African troops at the front of this.
“Our forces are being backed by a Uruguayan reaction force, which will provide the additional protection needed during this operation,” Mgwebi said.
He said the area around Goma was still extremely tense, with the fleeing of DRC government forces to the city of Bukavu affecting the situation.
Asked why Indian forces under UN command, along with DRC government forces, had not been able to stop the rebel advance, despite having air superiority, Mgwebi said the reason was unknown.
“It is a mystery. However, our commander on the ground has a plan which, if need be, can lead to the evacuation of our troops. This is not envisaged at this stage,” he said.
Commenting on the SADC report, Mgwebi said that, if required, South Africa would participate as a partner in a regional plan under the African Union.
“The SADC was requested to send a military force. Currently, this and other political options are being explored,” he said.
Meanwhile, Sapa-AFP reports that the DRC government yesterday accused the M23 rebels of plundering Goma and taking their loot over the border to Rwanda.
Referring to raids throughout the city, government spokesman Lambert Mende said many buildings, including one housing the provincial assembly, were “looted from top to bottom”.
Mende said there had been an attempt to plunder the vault of the central bank in Goma.