The SA National Defence Force (SANDF) denied on Wednesday that South African troops were isolated or under threat from M23 rebels who have captured the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo town of Goma.
On Tuesday the DRC army retreated before the M23 advance, leaving the UN peacekeeping force MONUSCO in Goma alone to face the rebels.
South Africa has about 1 000 troops from the 121st Infantry Battalion stationed in the Goma area serving in MONUSCO.
Although two of them were lightly injured by shrapnel from what appeared to be a stray mortar last week, they were not currently in danger, General Xolani Mabanga, deputy Defence Department spokesperson said on Wednesday.
He said MONUSCO did not have a mandate to confront the M23 rebels directly and as far as the SANDF could discern, the M23 did not regard MONUSCO as the enemy.
However, he added that that assessment had been made when the M23 was saying that it had no intention of taking Goma which it had now done. “So that could change.”
Mabanga dismissed any suggestion that South Africa had decided to evacuate any of its troops from Goma and said it would follow the lead of the overall MONUSCO force commander who would decide if that was necessary.
Mabanga stressed that MONUSCO still controlled Goma airport which meant the troops could be evacuated if necessary
On Tuesday France’s ambassador to the UN in New York, Gérard Araud, told journalists that MONUSCO troops continued to patrol the streets of Goma after it was captured by the M23 to fulfil their mandate of protecting civilians.
He said France had received information that the M23 rebels were committing human rights violations against Goma’s citizens especially women and children.
Mabanga said he was not sure if South Africa’s contingent in MONUSCO was participating in these patrols or just keeping to their bases in the outskirts of Goma. The decision on how to deploy them was up to the MONUSCO force commander.
But he was certain that the South African troops were not actively engaging the M23 rebels and were not under threat from them.
MONUSCO has come under some criticism for not preventing the M23 from capturing Goma. Araud was asked by a journalist how it was possible that MONUSCO could let the rebels take the town of a million inhabitants without a fight.
“ It is not the mandate of the MONUSCO,” he said.” MONUSCO is not supposed to fight in a civil war. It is true that from the outside it looks a bit strange to have soldiers that do not fight.
“UN blue helmets are not party to a civil war. They are not supposed to do the job of the national army.”
He said MONUSCO had actively supported the DRC army when it was resisting the M23 but since the DRC army withdrew from Goma, MONUSCO’s task was now just to protect civilians.
“There are only 1 600 soldiers in a city of 1 million Inhabitants, a sprawling city, very big, so of course it is a difficult job.”
On Tuesday International Relations and Co-operation Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane was asked about the situation of South Africa’s troops, at a press conference in Cape Town
“The latest reports we got is that they are safe. We hope they remain safe,” she replied.
She pointed out that the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region was holding a summit on Tuesday and Wednesday to decide on the possible deployment of a new regional force in the eastern DRC.
That force would have a robust mandate to “eliminate” “negative forces” such as the M23, the Great Lakes leaders decided at an earlier summit. Nkoana-Mashabane said South Africa would decide on what contribution if any it would make to the new force once the current summit had decided what its requirements were.
Meanwhile, the Human Rights Watch on Wednesday called on the US to use its influence over Rwanda to stop it supporting the M23 rebels.
It criticised a UN Security Council resolution passed on Tuesday which called for the immediate withdrawal of the M23 from Goma and imposed sanctions on some M23 leaders.
“Sadly, this resolution fails to name Rwandan officials known by the UN to have supported M23’s atrocities from day one,” said UN Advocacy Director at Human Rights Watch, Philippe Bolopion.
“If the Security Council is to protect civilians in Goma, it needs to send a clearer message to Kigali. Despite its influence on Rwanda, in public the US government has been inexplicably silent. For the sake of Goma’s population, the US should support urgent sanctions against the M23’s foreign backers,” Bolopion said. - Independent Foreign Service