By Graeme Hosken and Sapa-AFP
South African peacekeepers, operating with Caspir light armoured vehicles, have apparently been involved in heavy fighting in a major confrontation with rebel forces in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
The fighting, which has lasted for more than three days, comes as an uneasy ceasefire was proclaimed over the strategic eastern DRC provincial town of Goma on Thursday.
The ceasefire came after UN forces used MI24 attack helicopters to try and stop rebel leader Laurent Nkunda's advance on Goma. The rebels are apparently on the outskirts of Goma.
Days before intense fighting broke out between Nkunda's forces, the UN and the DRC army, who have subsequently abandoned their posts, UN force commander, General Vincente Diaz de Villegas Herreria resigned.
It is not known why he quit.
More than 700 crack South African infantry troops from 121 Battalion in Mathubathuba in KwaZulu-Natal are currently stationed in the eastern DRC as part of the UN's peacekeeping mission in which nearly a third of the 17 000-strong UN force is deployed to bolster weak government forces in their battle against Nkunda's forces.
It is believed that UN peacekeepers, many of whom are South African soldiers, are the only obstacle to a complete rebel takeover of the strategic city, after government forces, who apparently include the DRC army's newly trained rapid reaction deployment battalion, fled on Wednesday amid accusations of looting.
Nkunda's advance has seen more than 40 000 displaced people fleeing the area across borders into neighbouring Uganda and Rwanda, with nearly 30 000 trapped between UN and rebel forces.
The battalion, which was trained by the SANDF and handed over to the DRC government this month, was established to be quickly deployed to flash point areas such as Goma.
South African National Defence Force (SANDF) sources yesterday said South African troops had been involved in the latest fighting.
The clashes come as SANDF sources on Friday revealed that South Africa was the only country in which there was no agreement on what role the country's soldiers can play.
This means that SA troops, who were deployed with light armoured Caspirs which can only withstand small arms fire, can be used for any and all roles, including stopping the rebels who are armed with T55 tanks.
Other UN forces, which are apparently several days away from Goma, are using armed vehicles such as the Ratel 20s and Ratel 90s.
SANDF spokesperson, Brigadier General Kwena Mangope, confirmed South Africa's forces had been involved in clashes.
"At this stage we do not know the extent of the involvement.
"We just know that they have been fighting," he said.
Nkunda, whose forces have captured several other strategic eastern DRC towns, said he would not shirk a fight with the UN for Goma if necessary.
MONUC spokesperson, Madndje Mounoubai, however said they would not relinquish Goma.