Airlift bureaucratic hiccup leaves SA soldiers stranded in DRC


South African soldiers, believed to members of 121 SA Infantry Battalion, found themselves stranded last week instead of flying home after a tour of duty with the UN Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

About 850 soldiers could not be flown back to South Africa because the UN appointed contractor, Ethiopian Airlines, apparently did not comply with regulations as stipulated by the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA). This left the soldiers stranded with only their sleeping bags while the rest of their luggage was “in transit” according to Gauteng Afrikaans daily Beeld.

The soldiers spent “days” waiting for the bureaucratic hiccup to be sorted out. The SA National Defence Force (SANDF) indicated transport of troops seconded to the UN was, rightly, not its responsibility while the paper could not contact anyone at UN headquarters in New York to comment on the issue.

Enquiries to Ethiopian Airlines and the South African Department of Transport also went unanswered.

Beeld said the soldiers were now back at MONUSCO headquarters in Goma with no indication of when they would return to South Africa.

In March an Ethiopian Airlines aircraft was photographed at Bloemfontein’s Bram Fischer Airport. It was apparently in the Free State capital to collect soldiers from the SANDF mobilisation centre and fly them to either Sudan or the DRC.

The newspaper reported military sources indicated the Department of Transport, of which SACAA is an operating agency, maintains there are South African aircraft that can meet UN requirements in terms of moving soldiers to the DRC from Bloemfontein. This is apparently one of the reasons why Ethiopian was not allowed into South African airspace. It also appears the airline does not have a foreign operator’s permit which has to be issued after approval by SACAA.

Brigadier General Xolani Mabanga, SANDF defence media liaison, told defenceWeb that “we don’t have troops stranded,” and that such reports are “unfounded stories.” He added that since the UN is arranging the movement of South African troops, he could not say when exactly the soldiers would be returning or via which aircraft.