South Africa ‘downplayed’ casualties in CAR fighting
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Many more South African troops died during a rebel offensive in the Central African Republic than Pretoria has admitted, local sources have told RFI. The same sources said the soldiers were fighting to protect South African mining and oil contracts.
Doubts have been raised over the number of South African soldiers killed during a coup d’état in the Central African Republic (CAR) in late March.
Officially, South Africa says that 13 of its soldiers died fighting rebels from the Seleka alliance that toppled deposed CAR president François Bozizé's regime.
But according to the rebels, as many as 36 South Africans were killed, raising questions over why the soldiers were stationed there and why the South African government would want to cover up the number of deaths.
Cyril Bensimon, correspondent for FRANCE 24’s sister broadcaster Radio France Internationale (RFI), said on Thursday: “General Arda Hakouma, the chief of staff for the Seleka forces, told me categorically that on March 23, in fighting between the town of Damara and the capital Bangui, not 13 but 36 South Africans were killed.”
The South African force, Bensimon said, was caught between two separate rebel units, one heading for Bangui and the other moving north in a “flanking manoeuvre”.
“From our information, François Bozizé was with the South Africans but managed to escape,” said Bensimon.
“And according to another source the death toll could be even higher,” the RFI reporter added. “The source, who wants to remain anonymous, was at the French military base on Monday March 25, the day after Bangui fell to the rebels. He said he counted at least 50 body bags about to be loaded onto a Hercules transport plane heading for Pretoria. All the while, other dead bodies of South African soldiers kept arriving.”
Bensimon said that other military and diplomatic sources had confirmed to him that the number of South Africans killed was “more than 40”.
Aside from why South Africa appears to have downplayed the number of soldiers killed in the fighting, the question remains as to why the country’s troops were so keen to defend CAR’s ousted president at such a high cost.
“Senior members of the [CAR’s Seleka-dominated] government and security sources tell me that Pretoria was fighting to save these contracts,” Bensimon said.
“One minister singled out South African company Dig Oil which was prospecting in CAR, saying it was a ‘cash cow’ for [South Africa’s ruling] African National Congress. One of the company’s major shareholders is the nephew of South African President Jacob Zuma.”
Bensimon concluded: “If these accounts are confirmed, a major political crisis in South Africa seems inevitable.”