Apr. 2 (GIN) – After a deadly confrontation that mismatched 200 soldiers with 3,000 rebel troops, South Africans sent to the Central African Republic (CAR) counted their losses, the heaviest military loss since the end of apartheid in 1994.
Thirteen soldiers were killed in Bangui, the CAR capital, in clashes with Seleka rebels who toppled the dictatorial President Francois Bozize, now believed in hiding in nearby Benin.
Another 27 were wounded and flown back to South Africa.
But especially troubling to the South Africans was finding that among the Seleka rebels were children, some no older than 4th grade.
“They knew how to advance, put down suppressing fire, withdraw, use camouflage,” one troop member told the Sunday Times newspaper. “They knew we had no support … they had intelligence on us … they knew our movements, our numbers, our capabilities … everything about us.
“It was only after the firing stopped that we saw we had killed kids.”
He continued: “We did not come here for this … It makes you sick. They were crying, calling for help … calling for [their] moms.”
A paratrooper said: “We were told to serve and protect, to ensure peace.” The mission, however, morphed from training CAR soldiers, to protecting South African property, and finally to protecting civilians around the capital.
“All along we were told they were a bunch of rag-tags, nothing to worry about. We were lied to straight out,” he said of the Seleka rebels. “They were well armed.”
The deployment of South African troops in a country over 2,000 miles away is now facing stiff criticism at home where some say it was prompted by mining interests of the ANC.
Opposition leader Helen Zille told a news conference that Pres. Zuma had told an “untruth” to Parliament when he said the soldiers were being sent to the CAR for capacity building and training in terms of a memorandum of understanding with Mr Bozize.
“What makes this intervention even more disturbing is that the deployment was reportedly undertaken against expert military advice, allegedly to protect the business interests of a politically connected elite, both in South Africa and in the CAR.
“If this is so, President Zuma’s position — both as president of the republic and commander-in-chief of the armed forces — becomes untenable,” she said. The nation must know the truth.”
President Jacob Zuma meanwhile, has rebuffed the critics, calling the troops “heroes” sent to uphold South Africa’s foreign policy and protect a contingent of military trainers sent in 2007 under a military cooperation agreement.
“Let me emphasize that we reject any insinuation that these soldiers were sent to the CAR for any reason other than in pursuit of the national interest and the interests of the African continent,” he said at a memorial for the soldiers.
No decision has been made to withdraw fully from CAR. This will be “determined by a political process which is now unfolding,” said Defense Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula. Meanwhile, troop build-up has been reported in neighboring Uganda. A final decision about the CAR is expected shortly.