A platoon of South African soldiers from 8 South African Infantry Battalion will be cited for gallantry after being accosted by heavily armed militia in Darfur, Sudan.
On 18 August a team of 37 South African National Defence Force (SANDF) members were escorting an United Nations team on a long range patrol to north of the South African Company Operating Base (COB), Mellit in the Darfur Region of Sudan as part of their deployment with the Unamid peacekeeping mission in the region. The patrol comprised four Mamba Armoured Personnel Carriers (APCs), one Recovery Vehicle and two Land Cruisers. The patrol was to a small village, called Selibilo, 51km north of the base. The team was led by Lieutenant Phiri, a Platoon Commander from 8 South African Infantry Battalion.
On the way back to the COB the team was ambushed by an armed group and a stand-off ensued, SANDF Joint Operations said in a statement. As the protection element of the patrol had passed the ambush point, this allowed the militia to stop the second group behind them. The SANDF said that the militia were aiming an anti-tank weapon and 12.7 mm machineguns at them and had further militia members deployed on a hillside nearby.
The militia fighters then ordered the Section Commander to get out of his vehicle while pointing a weapon at him. Two fighters jumped onto one of the APCs, with one pointing a weapon at the SANDF light machine gun (LMG) gunner whilst a second armed man removed the LMG gunner from the vehicle. They demanded to see the Platoon Commander and when he arrived they ordered him to surrender and give them all their weapons otherwise they would kill everyone. “However, the Platoon Commander, Lt Phiri refused,” the SANDF said.
After two hours of negotiations to return the 7.62mm machinegun, the militia told Phiri that his members were surrounded by eight vehicles from a southerly direction and six others from a northerly direction but Phiri still refused to hand over anything. The militia then took firing positions, prompting Phiri to deploy his troops on the ground in a battle formation. He informed his troops that they would move out of the area with all vehicles, walking alongside the vehicles irrespective of the obstruction by the militia members.
Before the patrol started moving out of the danger area on foot, one of the militia members punctured the rear tyre of one of the UN Land Cruisers. One of the SANDF members observed this and pushed him away from the vehicle, all the while with automatic weapons being pointed at him. Phiri instructed the recovery vehicle to come forward and tow the UN vehicle.
The SANDF Mambas were able to move forward with the troops alongside, with weapons being pointed in both directions. “They safely moved out of the danger area and proceeded back to the base after mounting the vehicles one kilometre from the danger zone. The members who stood their ground in the face of great danger will be cited for their deed of bravery,” the SANDF statement concluded.
Around 2 000 SANDF personnel are currently taking part in peacekeeping operations, as South Africa increases its role in regional conflict resolution and peacekeeping efforts. SANDF troops are deployed in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The SANDF has more than 800 troops deployed in Sudan with the African Union and United Nations as part of Unamid (their joint operation in Darfur).
The SANDF has recorded several incidences in Sudan – for instance, on 11 April 2010, four South African UN Police personnel were attacked in South Darfur and abducted and two vehicles stolen. They were released sixteen days later. On 26 August 2010 the South African contingent had one assault rifle stolen.
An attack on a Unamid patrol in North Darfur on 12 November 2012 killed one South African; an attack on a Unamid patrol on 17 October 2012 killed one South African in North Darfur; and an attack on a South African Unamid patrol in North Darfur on 29 October 2014 injured three. The ambush was on a section dispatched from the South African battalion base to collect water.
Earlier this year President Jacob Zuma, as commander-in-chief of the SANDF, extended the South African deployment in Darfur by another 12 months. Keeping the 850 soldiers in Sudan until March 31 next year will cost R369,079,895 for the 12 months.