South Africa is ready to send troops back to Central African Republic a month after suffering its worst military casualties since the end of apartheid in clashes with rebels, President Jacob Zuma said.
The government is waiting for a formal request from regional leaders and the rebel Seleka alliance that controls the Central African Republic to send soldiers as part of a multinational peacekeeping force, Zuma said in an interview in Cape Town yesterday. They have made a verbal appeal, he said.
“That will be considered by us when it is formally put,” Zuma, 71, said from his offices adjacent to Parliament. “If that request comes, if we did not go, it would not be in keeping with our policy.”
South Africa withdrew troops stationed in the country after Seleka fighters killed 13 soldiers in clashes during a nine-hour battle on March 24 as they seized the capital, Bangui, and ousted President Francois Bozize. Zuma faced a barrage of criticism from opposition political parties, labor unions and security analysts in the wake of the crisis as questions were raised about the reason for the army’s mission in the conflict-ridden nation.
The main opposition Democratic Alliance said the pledge contradicts comments from Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, who told lawmakers yesterday that South Africa has not decided to send any troops to the country.
“With a very straight face, clear conscience, I deny that the government is planning to send troops to the Central African Republic,” Motlanthe said, prompting the DA to announce in an e-mailed statement today that it will submit a parliamentary question to seek clarification.
Zuma and Motlanthe’s statements were not at odds, because no formal decision to deploy troops had yet been taken, Mac Maharaj, the president’s spokesman, said by phone today.
South Africa sent 200 soldiers to the nation this year to protect as many as 85 military trainers when the rebels began advancing toward Bangui. About 700 rebel fighters were killed in the battle with the South African troops, according to the government.
The DA has also demanded a parliamentary inquiry into the casualties.
“We were not told the whole truth about the reasons for the deployment,” David Maynier, the DA’s defense spokesman, told lawmakers on April 23. “Our soldiers were left dangling, with both hands tied behind their backs, in a deadly firefight.”
South Africa will coordinate with other nations that have troops in Central African Republic, including France, to avoid a repeat of the losses, Zuma said.
“Going back there I think all of us have learnt including all the forces I’m talking about, would know how to handle the situation,” Zuma said. “If you go into a conflict area, I don’t think you can guarantee anything.”
South Africa is seeking to expand its role in promoting peace on the continent and reduce the reliance on foreign powers. Earlier this month, the government agreed to add troops to a United Nations intervention force in the eastern region of Democratic Republic of Congo, where rebels have clashed with government forces.
South Africa has the biggest economy on the continent and companies including Massmart Holdings Ltd., the food and general goods retailer controlled by Wal-Mart Stores Inc., MTN Group Ltd. and AngloGold Ashanti Ltd., the world’s third-biggest gold producer, operate businesses in Africa.
Even so, France’s military intervention in the West African nation of Mali this year was necessary as regional powers were unable to prevent Islamist militants advancing toward the capital, Bamako, Zuma said.
“France helped stop the rebels from really overrunning the country,” Zuma said. “The president of France actually called a number of us to inform us and say: ‘Look I’m taking this action because of x,y,z,’ which is not like a thing that has been happening in the past. That was appreciated as well.”
Islamist insurgents and ethnic Touareg separatists seized control of much of northern Mali after a coup in March last year left a power vacuum in Bamako. France, which has almost 4,000 troops in Mali, is planning to wind down its mission after air strikes helped to oust the rebels from key towns.
With elections looming in neighboring Zimbabwe, Zuma said the Southern African Development Community will aim to prevent a repeat of violence that’s marred voting in the past.
“We are very clear we are going to do everything to ensure we avoid” a repeat of the violence, Zuma said. Zimbabweans “must have learnt from that experience that this time around everyone would want to play the game within the rules that we produce a democratic and accepted election in Zimbabwe.”
The parties of President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai share power in a coalition government brokered by the 15-nation SADC after a disputed ballot in 2008.