SANDF casualties in latest battle against M23 rebels in the DRC

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South African National Defence Force (SANDF) soldiers serving with the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (SAMIDRC) have been caught up in the latest fighting between government forces and M23 rebels, with one soldier killed in action and 13 wounded.

Reports by Ituri Vision, Rwanda Tribune, Kivu Press Agency, and Kivu Morning Post indicate DRC government forces (FARDC) together with Wazalendo militia and SAMIDRC troops bombarded M23 rebel positions in the mountains around Sake – about 30 km from Goma – on Thursday morning, which was followed by a ground assault on M23 positions. The M23 rebels apparently destroyed five SAMIDRC vehicles, and captured an armoured personnel carrier (APC) and a truck. They also bombarded Sake, with at least several projectiles falling on the town, killing a number of civilians.

Photos and videos posted on social media show rockets being fired at – apparently – M23 targets, and an SA Army Mamba armoured personnel carrier covered in spent shell casings and with bullet damage to the windscreen and at least one flat tyre. Another photo shows an IVECO truck apparently captured from FARDC or Tanzanian forces.

MuangalaInfos24 reported that one of the M23’s projectiles hit an SADC vehicle, causing ‘serious injuries,’ while Ituri Vision said several deaths and injuries were reported on the SADC side after SAMIDRC vehicles were hit.

Jonathan Rosenthal, Africa Editor at The Economist, was told by an unconfirmed source that South Africa had one killed in action and more than a dozen wounded. “This comes after repeated warnings to the government that it has been putting troops at risk in Congo by not providing proper support.”

A photo posted later on 30 May shows five South African drivers licenses and ID cards, apparently either from captured SANDF personnel, or recovered from the SAMIDRC vehicles. Another photo shows an SA Army Casspir APC seemingly abandoned next to a road.

An SA Army Casspir in the DRC.

A statement issued on 30 May by Alliance Fleuve Congo/M23 condemned “the attacks perpetrated against civilian population by SAMIDRC, in coalition with the forces of the Kinshasha regime, mainly by FARDC, FDLR, mercenaries, militias (Wazelendo), and the Burundi National Defence Forces.”

The statement goes on to say that the crisis in the DRC “should be resolved politically. Surprisingly, SAMIDRC is now leading attacks against innocent civilians. The SADC countries that are fighting alongside Kinshasha regime coalition forces should bear full responsibility for the massacres against innocent civilians.”

M23/Alliance Fleuve Congo said the provisional toll for Thursday’s fighting included ten civilians killed, several wounded and many more displaced by shelling; four armoured personnel carriers destroyed; and two APCs and one IVECO truck captured.

“The M23/AFC will continue to defend itself professionally and protect civilian population while we continue to reminder the international community of the unprecedented humanitarian crisis orchestrated by the Kinshasha coalition forces,” the statement, attributed to spokesman Lawrence Kanyuku, concluded.

After more than 24 hours of silence, the SANDF on Friday evening finally confirmed that its members came into contact with the M23 at Sake, with 13 injured and one killed as well as two APCs damaged. All injured members were evacuated to Goma Hospital and are recuperating.

“Once all other information involving our members have been verified an update will be
communicated and the family of the deceased member will be informed,” Siphiwe Dlamini, Head of Communication at Defence Headquarters said in a statement.

Earlier on Friday, the South African National Defence Union (Sandu) issued a statement noting “with concern reports circulating on social media as well as reports directly from SANDF members deployed in DRC about an attack by M23 near Sake on 30 May 2024 which resulted in 1 member of the South African Medical Health Services killed in action and more than a dozen soldiers injured and hospitalized – some in critical condition.”

The reports also suggest the destruction and or loss of certain military vehicles, equipment, ammunition and at least one weapon. “Despite these reports the SANDF has remained silent. Sandu reminds the Department of Defence of its duty to be transparent and officially inform the public about the facts of these reported incidents as well as provide an assurance as to consequential action (without detailing specific tactics and strategy).”

Sandu cautioned that silence only undermines public confidence. It also sends its condolences to the deceased member’s family and wishes a speedy recovery to the injured.

Rocky start to SAMIDRC deployment

The SANDF’s deployment with SAMIDRC got off to a shaky start when two soldiers were killed and three injured in an M23 mortar attack on a base on 14 February.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has committed up to 2 900 SANDF soldiers to SAMIDRC until mid-December. SAMIDRC will fill much of the gap left by the departure this year of the United Nations mission (MONUSCO) in the DRC. Apart from confirmation of 2 900 South African military personnel being contributed under Operation Thiba at a cost of R2.37 billion, there is no information from the SADC on Malawian and Tanzanian troop numbers that will make up the rest of the 5 000-strong SAMIDRC force.

SAMIDRC troops have already taken multiple casualties, including three Tanzanian soldiers killed by rebel mortar fire on 8 April, and another three injured. In February, M23 rebels fired at a South African Air Force (SAAF) Oryx helicopter, which was hit at least 43 times by suspected AK-47 and PK machine gun fire during a MONUSCO medical evacuation mission, injuring one of the pilots and a medical orderly.

The M23 rebels that SAMIDRC are facing are being equipped with modern weapons, including Rwandan-supplied surface-to-air missiles. They are also highly familiar with the terrain and can operate easily amongst the local population. The SANDF has limited to no air support and far too few troops on the ground, leaving them vulnerable.

After the February mortar attack on SANDF soldiers, African Defence Review Director Darren Olivier said that SAMIDRC was under-sized and under-resourced for the requirement, and warned that “there will be more casualties.”

Seasoned defence expert Helmoed Romer Heitman believes the best option for South Africa would be to “accept the loss of face and pull out” from the DRC as at least 20 000 troops with considerable air support are what is really needed to ensure success against the M23 and other armed groups operating in the east of the country. Heitman noted that the United Nations mission with 20 000 troops over two decades failed to bring peace to the eastern DRC, making it unlikely 5 000 SADC troops would do any better.

Failing a withdrawal, Heitman said the SANDF deployment should at least be equipped with 120 mm mortars if not some G5 155 mm howitzers, along with mortar locating radars.

Ground forces need to ensure that there are enough armoured vehicles for any likely movements. “We do not want another Bangui Y-junction,” he said, referring to the 2013 Battle of Bangui where dozens of South African paratroopers in unarmoured vehicles faced thousands of Seleka rebels, ultimately resulting in the deaths of 13 South African personnel. In addition, some anti-tank weapons should be deployed.

If the South African Air Force can get aircraft in, it needs to ensure that their electronic countermeasures systems are up do date, Heitman urged, especially in the face of the surface-to-air missile threat.

In recent weeks the SANDF has chartered cargo aircraft (mainly Ilyushin Il-76s) to move troops and equipment from South Africa to the DRC, but it is not clear what sort of reinforcement was provided to South Africa’s SAMIDRC contingent.

“Our forces in the DRC as part of SAMIDRC are still heavily under resourced and critically short of fire power, adequate ground transport and air support,” said defence expert Dean Wingrin. “Despite the recent airlift, the SANDF is not and cannot be properly capacitated under the current funding restrictions.”

There is criticism that the SANDF is too thinly spread to properly contribute to SAMIDRC. To free up resources for the DRC, Olivier believes the SANDF needs to tell government that if they want SAMIDRC they really need to wind down the internal deployments for Eskom and illegal mining.

In addition to this, he believes South Africa “should be playing hardball with other SADC members to come to the party as well,” as SADC countries like Angola have large and well-equipped militaries but are not contributing to SAMIDRC. South Africa should also be engaging heavily with Rwanda on a diplomatic level, as Rwanda supports the M23 group, although it denies this.

While it is important to stabilise the DRC, as this has benefits for South Africa and the continent, Heitman believes withdrawing from the SADC Mission in Mozambique (SAMIM) to free up capacity for SAMIDRC is a mistake, as there has been a big increase in insurgent attacks in northern Mozambique ahead of SAMIM’s planned withdrawal in July, and this poses a more immediate threat to South Africa.