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Wed Oct 22 11:40:20 SAST 2014

Rooivalk plays key role in routing rebels

Stephan Hofstatter | 13 November, 2013 10:27
FIRE POWER: South Africa's attack helicopter helped to drive the M23 rebels from their strongholds

South Africa's Rooivalk attack helicopter saw action for the first time this week, playing a decisive role in defeating M23 rebels.

In a fortnight of fighting in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Congolese army troops drove the rebels from their strongholds.

M23's shelling of civilians prompted the 3000-strong UN force, which includes 1345 South African troops, to join the final battle this week.

General Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz, commander of the UN forces, told the Sunday Times that the Rooivalk had proved its worth.

Last Sunday, the rebels bombed the town of Bunagana, killing six civilians and injuring 10. "It was important to silence their weapons, using a combination of artillery and helicopters," said Cruz.

The Rooivalk went into action on Monday against the rebel positions.

Cruz said the Rooivalk had "performed very well as reinforcement to the mission" and would be deployed in future attacks.

"They are very good aircraft - very precise with very good technology. We need this kind of fire power for our missions."

The attack on Monday marked the end of the 20-month M23 rebellion. On Monday evening, African heads of state meeting in Pretoria, including Congo president Joseph Kabila, issued a joint declaration that the M23 must publicly renounce its rebellion. By Tuesday morning, the Congolese army occupied all key M23 positions around Bunagana.

Bunagana is 80km north of Goma, which was shelled by M23 rockets in August before the rebels were driven off strategic hills overlooking the town by an offensive that left three South Africans wounded.

South African special forces troops said this week that they had used mortar and sniper fire to dislodge the rebels. "They fled to Rwanda after we took their positions," said a South African soldier.

By late this week, the charred remains of M23 military vehicles were the only visible signs of these battles.

Life is returning to normal in these towns after more than a year under M23 occupation. Markets are thronging with people and peasants are returning from their fields carrying grass, wood and sugar cane or pushing chukudus, the wooden bikes used in the Congo to transport goods.

"Life was going from bad to worse under M23," said Amos Kambale, a teacher in Rutshuru. "They would charge taxes on lorries driving through here. And when they arrived many people were killed, so we felt very unsafe."

"People are very happy about this defeat," said Goma lawyer Tresor Kitsongo, "but the problem has not been solved. We need real peace, but if the government doesn't want to develop the country there will be another rebellion."

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Wed Oct 22 11:40:20 SAST 2014 ::