New mission for SA troops
South African soldiers backed by a heavily armed UN reaction force are preparing to take back an airport in the Democratic Republic of Congo that has been overrun by rebels.
The airport, near Goma, fell to M23 rebels last week. It is one of the main aerial transport links in that country and a vital supply point for thousands of UN peacekeepers in the eastern DRC.
South Africa has more than 1200 soldiers deployed in the eastern DRC province of North Kivu, where Goma is situated.
M23 rebels, who were engaged in heavy fighting with DRC government forces, last week swarmed through the eastern DRC, taking several towns and causing tens of thousands of civilians to flee.
The South African plan to retake the airport was proposed as the rebels agreed on Tuesday to a conditional withdrawal from certain areas, creating a 20km neutral zone, in terms of a deal struck in Uganda.
The UN and residents said yesterday that there were signs that the rebels were withdrawing from Goma.
The increase in tension coincides with news that a report by an SADC military team is nearing completion. The report was drafted after the DRC government asked the SADC to send a military force to the region.
Lieutenant-General Derick Mgwebi, chief of the SA National Defence Force's joint operations, said South African soldiers were preparing to retake Goma's airport.
"The airport is not safe and the UN has withdrawn all its aircraft, including SA Air Force helicopters, to the city of Bukavu.
"From here we were operating secret resupply routes to ensure that our troops and other peacekeepers get ammunition.
"The UN has decided to retake the airport, with South African troops at the front of this. [Our] engineers will build fortifications to ensure the airport is protected.
"Our forces are being backed by a Uruguayan reaction force, which will provide additional protection needed during this operation," he said.
Mgwebi said the entire area around Goma continued was still extremely tense, with the fleeing of DRC government forces to the city of Bukavu affecting the situation.
Asked why Indian forces under UN command, along with DRC government forces, had not been able to stop the rebel advance, despite having air superiority, Mgwebi said the reason was unknown.
"It is a mystery. However, our commander on the ground has a plan which, if needs be, can lead to the evacuation of our troops. This is not envisaged at this stage," Mgwebi said.
Mgwebi, commenting on the SADC report, said that, if required, South Africa would participate as a partner in a regional plan under the AU.
"The SADC was requested to send a military force. Currently, this and other political options are being explored," he said.
Sapa-AFP reports that the DRC government yesterday accused the M23 rebels of plundering Goma and taking their loot over the border to Rwanda.
Referring to raids throughout the city, government spokesman Lambert Mende said that many buildings, including one housing the provincial assembly, were "looted from top to bottom" and mineral stocks seized by the state were transported across the border, despite an export ban.
Mende also said there had been an attempt to plunder the vault of the central bank in Goma.