Monday 13 May 2013

We're going to war

Graeme Hosken
The Times

As South African troops prepare for deployment to the violence- racked east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the enemy is gearing up for full-scale war.

A 1000-strong South African contingent is expected to be deployed to the region within a month as part of an African intervention force. It will almost certainly be drawn into conflict with the heavily armed and battle-hardened M23 rebel group after the collapse of peace talks between the rebels and the central government in Kinshasa.

One of 33 rebel groups in the region, the M23 has 40t of munitions looted from DRC army armouries in clashes in the east of the country last year.

The M23 routed DRC government forces in November in a fight for the capital of the country's eastern region, Goma, where South African peacekeepers were deployed. In the battle for Goma, South African soldiers were caught by surprise and the M23 forces - whose officers have over 20 years of jungle combat experience - were able to take the town within days.

Reported to have access to T55 and T72 Soviet-era tanks, and armed with anti-tank and surface-to-air missiles, anti-aircraft guns, heavy machine guns, armoured vehicles and rocket-propelled grenades, the M23's 5500-strong force is in the final stages of preparing for war.

The rebels have upped their propaganda war against the South Africans since warning President Jacob Zuma last month of a "catastrophic and apocalyptic" response if the SANDF engaged them.

The group has since revealed that it plans to kidnap SANDF troops to force South Africa to about-turn on the deployment.

The rebels are said to be backed by Rwandan and Ugandan military advisers and special forces, a claim both countries deny.

In March, the UN Security Council authorised the deployment of a 3000-man intervention force to the DRC to work alongside 17000 UN peacekeepers. The intervention force, which will comprise South African, Malawian and Tanzanian troops, is expected to arrive in the DRC within a month.

As opposed to the peacekeeping force, the new intervention force's mandate will see troops being able to engage rebel forces regardless of provocation in order to bring stability to the region.

Two months ago 13 South African paratroops were killed in the battle for the Central African Republic's capital, Bangui.

South Africa's most serious military disadvantages in that battle were lack of air support and poor intelligence - the same situation now faced by the troops destined for the DRC.

The SANDF has limited heavy-lift air transport capability, its Rooivalk attack helicopters' Makopa anti-tank missiles are not yet certified, and it is most unlikely that the air force's Gripen fighter jets will be deployed to the DRC. Knowing all this, South African soldiers are gravely concerned about the impending battle.

An army officer, who has knowledge of the mission's planning, said: "We train and fight hard. We know our job and are capable, but with little air support, this fight is difficult. We learned good lessons in CAR but, make no mistake, this will not be easy.

"The M23 are well-armed and have good intelligence. They will not fight conventionally. It will be guerrilla-style attacks preying on our weaknesses, and our lack of cohesion and joint training with the other forces."

SANDF spokesman Brigadier-General Xolani Mabanga declined to comment other than to say: "We are awaiting the UN's force deployment orders."

Defence analyst Helmoed Heitman said: "The M23 are not a bunch of ragtag rebels. They are superior in their jungle-fighting capabilities with backing from neighbouring countries [that are] running proxy military forces in the region.

''Our biggest problem is lack of air capabilities. We have the Rooivalk attack helicopter and Oryx troop-carrying helicopters, but we have no proper heavy-lift transport aircraft to get our equipment and troops in and out safely.

"The Rooivalk's anti-tank missile is not certified, meaning it will have to get dangerously close to the enemy for its rockets to be effective.

"We are taking our long-range G5 cannon and various armoured vehicles but these vehicles will not withstand the M23's fire-power. Their 37mm anti-aircraft guns are lethal both to air and ground targets and they have the support of tanks and special forces."

Heitman said major hindrances included the lack of intelligence. "Our defence intelligence is what got us into trouble in CAR.

"Added to this is the UN's view that this is just another peacekeeping mission. Instead of additional forces, they divided the current peacekeeping force, transferring the South African brigade to the intervention force and creating a vacuum for the rebels to capitalise on. This is not peacekeeping. It will be aggressive counter-guerrilla warfare in which people, including civilians, will die. You need numbers that are not there to bring about peace."

Heitman said the M23 rebels knew the SANDF's capabilities.

"They will not pick on us. They will pick on the possible weak links - Malawi and Tanzania - who have little battle experience. They will harass, divide and conquer." He added: "They have the strong possibility of tank and special forces support."

Maria Langer, DRC country manager for International Alert - a UK "peace-building" NGO - described the security situation as critical.

"The M23 have regrouped into key areas and are recruiting civilians for the war. They are 5km from Goma and are poised to take the town.

"Not only are the M23 around, but so are 30 other rebel groups."

Langer said: "The intervention force was designed to be a persuasive and preventative force but the DRC government sees it as a military solution."


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