THE South African government is investigating reports that dozens of South African soldiers were missing or killed in the battle for Bangui in the Central African Republic last month, International Relations and Co-operation Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane said on Thursday.
At the same time, Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula denied in Parliament that more than 13 South Africans died in the fighting, which erupted when rebel leader Michel Djotodia led thousands of insurgents into the Central African Republic capital.
Hours earlier, French radio station RFI reported that, according to Seleka rebel coalition commander Gen Arda Hakouma, at least 36 South African National Defence Force (SANDF) soldiers were killed during the fighting that erupted on March 23.
RFI’s correspondent in Bangui, Cyril Bensimon, also quoted an anonymous source as saying he was at the French military base at Bangui airport on March 25, where he saw 50 body bags ready to be loaded onto a Hercules C-130 transport plane sent from South Africa and due to fly to Pretoria.
“We will investigate the matter and keep South Africans informed,” Ms Nkoana-Mashabane said in reply to a question on the reports at a media briefing.
“In any coup situation there will be loss of lives, there will also be other unforeseen circumstances,” she said. “We will verify the facts and come back to you ... where we are sitting at the moment we have not received such reports.”
Ms Mapisa-Nqakula, replying to a question from Democratic Alliance MP David Maynier about the reports that many more soldiers had been killed, said the accurate figures were that 13 died during the battle, 27 were wounded and three were still in a critical condition in hospital.
She denied that 50 soldiers were captured by the rebels and that one soldier got lost and was returned the SANDF base by the rebels after the battle was over.
Ms Mapisa-Nqakula also denied that South African soldiers had provided VIP protection for ousted Central African Republic president Francois Bozize or helped him escape ahead of the fall of Bangui, saying: “We did not help him flee. He left the country while our troops were still fighting.”
She acknowledged there had been child soldiers among those killed by South African soldiers but insisted that when confronted by children armed with assault rifles, the soldiers had a right to defend themselves.
“Those who recruited the child soldiers are the ones who should be indicted,” Ms Mapisa-Nqakula said.
President Jacob Zuma announced on Wednesday that the remaining South African soldiers stationed in the Central African Republic under the terms of a bilateral agreement dating from 2007 would be pulled out.
Mr Djotodia ousted Mr Bozize and appointed himself as leader of the country, creating a transitional government headed by civilian Prime Minister Nicolas Tiangaye. He promised elections in three years.
Mr Zuma attended an extraordinary summit of leaders of the Economic Community of Central African States (Eccas) in the Chadian capital, N’djamena, on Wednesday, called to discuss the situation in Central African Republic.
Ms Nkoana-Mashabane said the leaders had decided the country’s new government was not legitimate and that they would send a team of ministers to the country to convey this message.
When they returned, another Eccas meeting would be convened to consider the team’s feedback, she said.
With Wyndham Hartley