'We killed 36 SA men'

05 April 2013 - 03:32 By Stephan Hofstatter, James Oatway and SCHALK MOUTON

Seleka rebel commanders made sensational new claims yesterday that dozens more South African troops were killed and captured during the battle of Bangui in the Central African Republic than admitted by the SA National Defence Force.

General Hassan Ahmat, commander of the 558-strong Brigade Rouge, told The Times in Bangui yesterday that he and his men had killed at least 36 South African soldiers and captured 46, releasing them soon afterwards.

"We were coming down from Bossangoa in 19 vehicles and we found the South African troops at PK12," he said.

PK12 is a suburb of Bangui 12km from the city centre and 2km from the South African base at PK10.

"Afterwards, I saw 36 bodies of South African soldiers myself lying near here," he said, pointing to the road into Bangui.

"More could have died afterwards from their wounds."

He said a non-governmental organisation had recovered the bodies but this could not be confirmed.

Ahmat also claimed that ousted president François Bozizé appeared between PK10 and PK12 in a white Toyota bakkie before fighting broke out on March 24. He was, Ahmat said, guarded by South African soldiers. He said he had received reports from his men that Bozizé was doling out cash to the South African soldiers, although this could not be verified independently.

"That's why I have no respect for them," he said. "Bozizé lied that South Africa was here to train Central African Republic's troops. But they were mercenaries; that is why he gave them money."

He said most of the fighting between Seleka and South African troops took place on the road leading into Bangui between PK12 and PK10, as well as on a stretch of road about 20km out of the city on the way to Damara 70km away.

Three other Seleka rebels confirmed Ahmat's account yesterday.

"I personally saw 36 bodies of South African soldiers myself, lying along the canal on the side of the road near here," said Colonel Bishara Ali Mahadien.

Another rebel, Lieutenant Suleiman Bihassan, said he saw "more than 14 dead South African soldiers with my own eyes".

"I saw more than 15 dead near PK12," said Amin Amed Ibraim.

SANDF spokesman Brigadier- General Xolani Mabanga described the comments as "blue lies".

"I don't know what they are planning to achieve with these unfounded stories," he said.

"We were not close to Bozizé. If they thought that we were mercenaries, why did they not wipe us out? Why did they not kill us like they are doing with everybody else associated with Bozizé?" Mabanga asked.

"We didn't have any troops captured. If they had 46 captured and thought they were mercenaries, why did they not kill them?

"We had one [SANDF soldier] captured and released when the general came and negotiated a ceasefire," he said.

The SANDF had an obligation to declare the death of "anybody who died in the service of the SANDF regardless of the post or position where they served".

"For the record, we have lost 13 men and suffered 27 casualties. Everybody deployed in CAR, we can account for. We have no missing soldiers or missing bodies."

Earlier yesterday, Radio France International quoted General Arda Hakouma, who led the rebel assault on Bangui, as saying he had seen 36 South Africans dead and 22 wounded.

The report also cited an anonymous source, who claimed he saw 50 body bags being loaded on to a C130 Hercules transport plane bound for Pretoria.

International Affairs and Cooperations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane yesterday said her department was "investigating" whether reports that between 34 and 50 South Africans had been killed in the battle for Bangui were true.

"We will investigate the matter and we will keep South Africans informed," she said.

Intelligence Minister Siyabonga Cwele held talks with CAR rebel leader Michel Djotodia in Bangui yesterday.

They were seen huddled in what appeared to be an amicable discussion.

Cwele was one of three ministers who accompanied President Jacob Zuma to the extraordinary summit of heads of state and government of the Economic Community of Central African States in Chad.

The other two were Nkoana-Mashabane and Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula.

Both Nkoana-Mashabane and Mapisa-Nqakula had to return to South Africa yesterday.

Nkoana-Mashabane had to attend a meeting with Namibian officials and Mapisa-Nqakula had to brief parliament's portfolio committee on defence on the situation in CAR. Cwele was the only minister available to go.

Brian Dube, spokesman for the Department of State Security, said Cwele "is acting on the basis of decisions taken as part of the meeting yesterday and as part of the South African approach to this matter".