Johannesburg - South African soldiers are flying into Goma this weekend for their dangerous mission of pacifying the many armed rebels groups terrorising the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
About 1 300 soldiers are being transported in chartered aircraft from Bloemspruit Air Force Base in Bloemfontein, after undergoing tough training at the combat school there, military sources said.
They would be going into battle prepared and armed, they said, more so than SANDF forces were when they lost 13 soldiers in a fight with Seleka rebels in Bangui, Central African Republic, in March.
The new force is a full battalion with its support company, a paratroop company, and other support elements such as Special Forces and engineers, armed with heavy machine guns and mortars.
The sources said the SANDF intended to take at least two Rooivalk attack helicopters.
SANDF spokesman Siphiwe Dlamini would not confirm the deployment, suggesting the troop movement was just part of the normal rotation of forces in and out of Monusco, the UN stablisation mission to the DRC.
Military sources said the troops going in were in fact replacing South Africa’s current contingent in Monusco, which was being rotated out.
The difference was that the fresh troops were part of a special “Force Intervention Brigade”, also known as the SADC Brigade, of 3 069 soldiers in three infantry battalions, one artillery company and a special force company – which has a much more aggressive mandate than the rest of Monusco, although part of it.
“This brigade is mobile, flexible and ready to conduct offensive operations in a versatile manner to neutralise armed groups, including the M23, in eastern DRC,” the UN said in a statement. Troops from Tanzania already started patrolling round the clock in the town of Sake and on the route leading to Goma.
The UN-created Force Intervention Brigade was there to “conduct operations unilaterally or in support of the FARDC to provide a safe and secure environment to the Congolese people,” Lieutenant-Colonel Félix Basse, Monusco military spokesman, said.
M23 rebels have vowed to resist the new force with all their might, and a few months ago launched a propaganda campaign through social media and letters to South African parliamentarians, warning them of high South African casualties if they did not pull out of the new missions.
South African military expert Helmoed Romer Heitman said he was “inclined to think that M23 will avoid a fight with the South Africa battalion if they can”.
M23 would be acutely aware that President Jacob Zuma would not want another defeat on his hands just after the Bangui battle.
“I think M23 will probe a bit, mainly against the Tanzanians and Malawians to see if they can score a quick win there for PR purposes, and then go over to low-key guerrilla stuff, leaving the brigade flailing around looking for them and bumping into the various Mai Mai groups,” he said.
The key problem with the overall force,
Romer Heitman said, was that it was “too weak”.
“Six battalions to deal with M23 and the other armed groups in the area, and protect towns and villages and keep roads open and so on, and do that without proper air support, is being optimistic to put it mildly,” he said.