A renewed outbreak of fighting in and outside Bangui, capital of the beleaguered Central African Republic (CAR), at the weekend has seen anything up to 12 South African soldiers killed according to unconfirmed reports.
Earlier today the SANDF was keeping its cards close to the chest with its director: corporate communications Brigadier General Xolani Mabanga in the forefront of damage control.
“We are not yet in a position to say how many troops we lost and how many were injured. The SANDF is still verifying information received, assessing the situation and informing, where possible, the next of kin of dead soldiers,” he said.
SANDF Chief General Solly Shoke is due to address a briefing in the country’s military capital, Thaba Tshwane, later today on the situation in the CAR and will hopefully clarify SANDF losses and involvement.
This against a background of unconfirmed reports that a pair of SAAF C-130BZs left AFB Waterkloof for Entebbe on Sunday. Another unconfirmed report said a chartered Lear jet, apparently carrying senior generals, also left the Centurion air force base en route for the Ugandan capital. It is believe the transport aircraft will bring home the dead as well as South African soldiers wounded in the battle for Bangui.
The Afrikaans daily Beeld reported top generals from the SANDF Joint Operations division spent Sunday at its Swartkop Park headquarters hammering out a plan to help the about 600 South Africans caught without air support in the CAR.
There are also currently unconfirmed reports of a further 200 SANDF troops having left AFB Waterkloof on Friday for the CAR. They apparently made it to Bangui airport but could not get any further.
Military analyst Helmoed Romer Heitman told Beeld the deployment of South African troops without any air cover meant they were at the mercy of rebels.
“It is a desperate situation,” he said adding it was “absolutely terrible” how wrong the deployment had gone.
Reports that a SAAF helicopter was involved in the latest round of fighting are untrue as no aerial assets have, as yet, been earmarked for deployment to the CAR.
Rebels in Central African Republic seized the riverside capital Bangui in fierce fighting on Sunday, forcing President Francois Bozize to flee and sowing confusion over who rules the mineral-rich heart of Africa Reuters reports.
At least nine South African soldiers were killed trying to prevent rebels from taking Bangui, a Reuters witness said, dealing a blow to Pretoria’s attempt to stabilise the chaotic central African nation and assert its influence in the region.
The Seleka rebel coalition resumed hostilities last Thursday in the former French colony and quickly swept south to Bangui with the aim of ousting Bozize, whom it accused of breaking a January peace deal to integrate its fighters into the army.
“We have taken the presidential palace,” Eric Massi, a Seleka spokesman, told the international news agency early on Sunday.
Government officials confirmed the rebels had captured the city of more than 600 000 people, which lies on the banks of the Oubangi River bordering Democratic Republic of Congo.
The violence is the latest in a series of rebel incursions, clashes and coups that have plagued the landlocked nation – which has rich yet underexploited deposits of gold, diamonds and uranium – since independence from France in 1960.
Other news agencies reported the South African soldiers were fighting side-by-side with CAR soldiers on Saturday. On Sunday it was reported the SANDF deployment has retreated to barracks hoping for safe passage to the airport outside the capital to escape the fighting and try to get back home.
The SANDF deployment went to CAR earlier this year on instruction from President Jacob Zuma, who is also Commander-in-Chief of the South African military. The deployment, it was said, was part of a bi-national memorandum of understanding between the two countries that would see South African soldiers assist in training and capacity building of the CAR military as well as protect South African assets on the ground in the troubled country.
According to Reuters an eye witness said he saw at least nine dead South African soldiers and later saw three more bodies in burnt-out South African military vehicles.
The rebels, now in control of the capital, indicated to a local TV station they viewed the South African soldiers as mercenaries and said they would be treated “accordingly”.