File photo: M23 rebel fighters in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Durban - As the SANDF prepares a battalion of soldiers to take on the M23 movement and other rebels in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, the M23 has thrown a curve ball by writing to Parliament urging it to call off the mission.

The SANDF confirmed on Tuesday that it had assigned a battalion – about 1 000 soldiers – to join an African regional brigade of about 3 000 soldiers tasked with clearing the eastern DRC of rebel groups.

The most feared of these is the M23, comprising ethnic Tutsis, widely suspected of being backed by Rwanda and Uganda. Armed with heavy weapons, including anti-aircraft artillery, the M23 captured Goma, the capital of North Kivu province, last November, routing the DRC army and Monusco (UN Stabilisation Mission).

On Tuesday, MPs in Cape Town received a letter from the M23 urging Parliament and the people of South Africa “to convince the government to not send their sons and daughters of their good nation in an absurd war against their Congolese brothers”.

The letter, signed by M23 political leader Bertrand Bisimwa, also said the rebel movement “would like to express too our compassion to the families of the South African soldiers who lost their lives while defending the Central African Republic”.

This referred to the battle between the SANDF and Seleka rebels on March 23 and 24 when the SANDF lost 13 parachute soldiers.

Last week, Bisimwa tweeted a much more hostile warning to South Africa: “We say welcome Zuma. M23 is not Seleka. If SA special Force attack us it will be catastrophic and apocalyptic.”

But the letter to Parliament was more conciliatory and some military analysts believe it might indicate the M23 was genuinely scared of confronting the SANDF. Since its military victories in November, the M23 has been severely weakened by internal skirmishes and splits.

Military analyst Helmoed-Römer Heitman believes the SANDF acquitted itself well in the Central African Republic and would do so again in the DRC. But he has doubts about the conception of both missions.

He believed the 1 000 soldiers would be taken from South Africa’s contingent in Monusco, rather than being fresh troops.

Political Bureau, Foreign Service