Graeme Hosken, Sipho Masombuka and Schalk Mouton
SOUTH African soldiers involved in the 18-hour battle in the Central African Republic (CAR) in which 13 of them were killed at the weekend claim their mission had nothing to do with training the republic’s army.
Describing a hellish battle, in which most of the South African soldiers ran out of ammunition, the fighting men on the ground denounced the official claims, saying their stated mission was bogus and was, in fact, an “attempt to keep CAR President Francois Bozize in power”.
The defensive positions of more than 400 South African soldiers were overrun at the weekend during the battle with more than 3000 Seleka rebel forces.
The battle, which is being hailed by South African military commanders and the Presidency as a feat of arms, claimed the lives of at least 13 South African soldiers and left 27 wounded.
At least one soldier is missing in action following the fierce fight for the capital, Bangui.
Speaking at the opening of the Brics summit in Durban yesterday, President Jacob Zuma said South Africa had agreed to provide the CAR army with infantry, artillery, special forces, logistics and driver training. It had also agreed to help in the refurbishment of the military infrastructure in Bouar and Bangui.
“It is a joke,” one of the soldiers still in Bangui said yesterday. “We should never have been here in the first place. All we were doing was protecting another dictator and ensuring that he clings on to power no matter what.
“We were doing the protection for him. Why? Now, when the s**t hits the fan, he flees with our help and we are left without any protection,” he said.
Another soldier involved in the battle said the claim that the South Africans were protecting military assets was rubbish.
“There was a lot more to this mission than what is in the public domain. If we were really here to protect assets and were worried that they would fall into enemy hands, why not issue the order to destroy them and then conduct a tactical withdrawal to fight again later when we have reinforcements?
“What happened here is seriously dodgy … the truth needs to come out to honour those who were killed here.
“We have fled our base because of the situation. We did well and fought until we had nothing to fight with, killing hundreds. All we can do now is pray that some form of help comes in, either in supplies and reinforcements, or evacuation,” he said.
The rest of the South African forces were holed up with their French counterparts, who were holding the airport. The French were expected to evacuate at midnight last night.
The wounded South African soldiers and the dead were brought home on two flights on Sunday night.
By yesterday evening, none of the wounded soldiers’ lives was in danger.
A senior army officer with intimate knowledge of the operation said what had been done to the South African troops in Bangui was a crime.
“How do you send troops armed with light machine-guns into a situation like that with no protection – no air cover, no armoured vehicles, no artillery or logistical support – to face rebels armed with 40mm cannons,” he said.
“All the generals are worried about now is saving face while the troops there, who are lucky not to have been massacred, remain in a perilous situation with no supplies.”
- Meanwhile, Bafana Bafana may have to make new plans for the World Cup qualifier in June to be played at a neutral venue.
SA Football Association (Safa) president Kirsten Nematandani said yesterday travelling arrangements had already been made for the national team for the away qualifier in Bangui.
He said Safa would have to be advised by the Confederation of African Football and Fifa – the world governing body – regarding a neutral venue if the situation in CAR did not change.