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Two South Africans were among three UN soldiers injured yesterday in an operation which claimed the life of the first peacekeeper in the effort to drive rebels back from the city of Goma in the Congo.
The UN forces are working with the Congolese army to drive back M23 rebels. The fighting was some of the fiercest in the week since the newly created UN intervention brigade went on the offensive.
“The main engagement is by the (Congolese) forces,” said Siphiwe Dlamini, also a spokesman for the South African military.
“We are retaliating and going on the offensive,” he said.
Independent defence analyst, Helmoed Romer Heitman, said that while South Africa’s involvement in the Congo was instrumental, the brigade was too small to be effective.
“South Africa has been part of the United Nations since 2001 and we are a fellow member of the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) within the Southern African Development Community (SADC) so we have a security commitment to the country,” Heitman said.
“But there is not enough air support for the UN and South African troops, and the terrain is unfamiliar. The DRC troops are not clowns. They have been fighting in that area for 10 to 20 years.”
Heitman said the DRC troops knew the terrain and had good intelligence networks.
This made the chances of any UN success “not exciting”, he said.
Heitman said in his view the UN was not doing enough to win the war and he felt that South Africa should be leading the mission.
Whoever was leading the attack, was looking out for their own interests, he said.
“South Africa needs to take charge, but, politically we are too unsure of ourselves. As a country we have the resources and capacity to take charge,” he said.
“We need sub-saharan Africa to be stable and prosperous, but who will ensure this? These countries can’t do it by themselves.”
Heitman said the South African battalion would do well because South Africa had learned a lot in the Central African Republic and had been well trained.
South African military spokesman, Brigadier-General Xolani Mabanga, confirmed today that two of the wounded soldiers were South African. He said the soldiers were not seriously injured.
On Saturday, one South African and two Tanzanians were hit by shrapnel.
UN forces and the Congolese army attacked rebel positions with helicopter gunships, armoured personnel carriers and a phalanx of ground troops yesterday, ramping up the UN’s engagement in the latest rebellion to roil this country’s tormented east.
The fighting is taking place 15km from the provincial capital of Goma, home to nearly a million people that was briefly captured by the M23 rebels late last year.
The UN involvement in the latest flare-up is in sharp contrast to November, when the UN peacekeeping mission, known as Monusco, stood by as the rebels overtook Goma because their mandate was only to protect civilians.
The stepped-up UN intervention brigade, created by the Security Council in March, is authorised to take the offensive against the rebels.
“It’s already changing the equation. For now, I would shy away from calling it a game changer. It’s certainly unprecedented not only for Congo, but for peacekeeping itself and the UN at large,” said Timo Mueller, a Goma-based researcher with the Enough Project, an advocacy group active in eastern Congo.
Martin Nesirky, spokesman for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, said Ban condemned the killing of the Tanzanian and violence against UN peacekeepers generally.
Even as forces pounded the rebels, UN officials continued to send mixed messages about the extent of their involvement, repeatedly saying they were merely “backing” or “supporting” the Congolese military, rather than leading the offensive themselves.
Lieutenant Colonel Felix Basse, the military spokesman for the UN peacekeeping mission, emphasised that UN forces were fighting alongside the Congolese army.
However, the president of the M23 rebel movement, Bertrand Bisimwa, who spoke by telephone, said the UN’s intervention brigade was on the frontline of yesterday’s fighting.
“It was the UN that was shooting directly at us, from their helicopters. It’s the Tanzanian and South African (UN) troops that are on the frontline. It’s them that we see first,” he said.
Angelo Izama, a Uganda-based analyst who runs a regional security think tank called Fanaka Kwawote, cautioned though that failure to unseat the M23 from their current strongholds overlooking Goma would be a psychological blow to the Congolese military and its UN allies.
He said it was highly unlikely that the UN brigade would sustain the offensive if more and more of its troops were killed or wounded in combat.
“If they come under sustained attack, the UN will have no appetite for war. They will call time out.” - Daily News