1 200 SANDF personnel in DRC

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The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) has 1 244 personnel from 121 South African Infantry Battalion currently deployed in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where they are tasked with supporting the United Nations peace mission there and protecting the local population. Several were recently wounded in fighting during the M23 rebel advance.

121 South African Infantry Battalion is currently deployed in the DRC’s North Kivu province “with the intention to protect civilians against armed groupings that harass the local population,” Joint Operations said in a statement yesterday. This battalion, with a strength of 1 244 members, took over from 2 South African Infantry Battalion that left the mission area on 7 November 2012.
“The daily tasking includes base protection, guard duties, reconnaissance, patrols, escort duties and reaction force,” Joint Ops said. On November 20, M23 rebels seized the important border town of Goma after Congolese soldiers withdrew and UN peacekeepers gave up defending the city, Reuters reports.

Lieutenant General Derrick M Mgwebi, Chief of Joint Operations, told journalists yesterday that the M23 advance into Goma occurred in an Indian area of responsibility. He noted that Ukrainian attack helicopters operated on behalf of the United Nations were used to halt the rebel advance into Goma, but after withdrawing, the rebels bypassed UN and government forces and took the town. During fighting between Congolese government forces and M23 rebels, three South African soldiers were lightly injured when a Congolese army RPG-7 detonated near their observation post.

South Africa’s peacekeeping efforts in the DRC began in April 1999. Currently, under Operation Mistral the SANDF has a battalion of troops and engineers in the Congo. The engineers are tasked with building roads and assisting the United Nations in camp construction. South African military police are tasked with overseeing UN troops from all nations in the DRC. The SANDF deployment in the DRC is under UN command.

There is also an aviation element in the DRC with Oryx helicopters. Former chief of the South African Air Force Lieutenant General Carlo Gagiano said that the SAAF was ready and willing to deploy Rooivalk combat helicopters for peacekeeping missions and just required an order to do so. At the moment Ukraine is providing Mi-24 attack helicopters to the UN.
“Our role is to keep the peace” in the DRC, Mgwebi said. This involves ensuring UN personnel and the local population are safe. He cautioned that it is difficult for the DRC to remain peaceful given the size of the country and “difficult” neighbours. He said instability in the region is beneficial to a number of players and added that it is “difficult to support people who cannot stand up and fight,” referring to the Congolese government, whose forces have struggled to contain the M23 rebellion.

Elsewhere, the SANDF also has a deployment in Sudan, which began in July 2005 as Operation Cordite. 10 South African Infantry Battalion is currently deployed in Sudan but will be relieved by 21 SAI Bn, which is currently undergoing mobilisation in Bloemfontein. The current strength is 798 at the mobilisation centre in Bloemfontein.

The main task of the deployment is taking care of internally displaced persons and escorting food and fuel convoys. Mgwebi said that the UN has recently recorded a number of fatalities from heavily armed groups who have not signed any ceasefire agreements.

Mgwebi said that peacekeepers have been involved in many ambushes in Sudan. SANDF Private Vincent Van der Walt was killed on October 17 whilst travelling in a Unamid (United Nations – African Union Hybrid operation in Darfur) convoy in Darfur while two other South African soldiers, Corporal Kabelo Ronald Sebe and Private Thabiso Sydwell Makhetha, were injured.

Mgwebi said the casualties were inflicted during an ambush that involved heavy weapons such as 12.7 and 14.5 mm machineguns, and mortars. He added that in spite of the ambush, the peacekeepers were able to complete their objective of providing information on violence that had been reported in the region, which the convoy had been sent to investigate.

The SANDF’s other active external deployment, Operation Copper, is in the Mozambique Channel. Patrols using ships and aircraft began on January 24, 2011, Joint Operations said.