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By Brian Sokutu

Senior Print Journalist

‘No turning back’ for peacekeeping troops in DRC – expert

Defence expert Helmoed-Römer Heitman said “if we retreat, we will look stupid and we will have showed how toothless we have become”.

Despite suffering fresh setbacks in the ongoing war in the Democratic Republic of Congo – with the killing this week of three Tanzanian soldiers and the death of one South African in a hospital – the peacekeeping troops are in no position to retreat, according to a leading defence analyst.

The three were killed in a mortar attack, with three others injured, and a South African soldier died while receiving treatment at a hospital in Goma.

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President Cyril Ramaphosa in February announced the beefing up of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) mission in the DRC with 2 900 deployed SA National Defence Force (SANDF) soldiers to face the Rwanda-backed M23 insurgents.

Defence expert Helmoed-Römer Heitman said a stable DRC was “in our economic and strategic interests”.

While he expressed concern at the SADC mission’s setbacks, he said there was “no turning back” for the troops because “if we retreat, we will look stupid and we will have showed how toothless we have become”.

Heitman added: “That said, the task is too great for any one African country to handle. The area is too large and the number of armed groups too many, with diverse aims.

“Strategically and economically, the mission would be justified if the force was adequate.”

The mission, Heitman said, has no chance of a lasting effect. “The force is too small – lacking air support in a region of difficult terrain, a few and poor roads.

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“A total of 5 000 troops are not going to achieve what 15 000 could not. I would fully support a deployment in the DRC if we and the SADC were serious about it – and if SA still had the military capability to do the job properly.

“But we cannot even patrol our borders and waters or police our air space. SANDF soldiers who are part of SADC mission could not muster an effective force for Cabo Delgado in Mozambique – something showing more direct problems and risks.”

A withdrawal from Cabo Delgado and neglecting the SA border security “to deploy into the DRC with an entirely inadequate force, is reckless,” said Heitman.

“Without adequate air power to support, reinforce or, if needs be, withdraw the force under pressure – we are placing troops at risk and doing so to no purpose.

“The sad part is that it is the soldiers who will be blamed when, in fact, they will have done the best they could with what they had.”

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Against the background of Ramaphosa meeting Rwandan President Paul Kagame during in Kigali last week and agreeing to a political solution on the Congolese-Rwanda standoff over the war, Heitman said Kagame had no confidence in a solution to the war being reached.

The DRC has maintained that the Tutsi M23 rebels were backed by Kagame. Heitman said South Africa had “real national economic interests” in the DRC.

“It is quite possible that some individuals also have direct economic interests.”

After meeting Ramaphosa, Kagame told a gathering marking 30 years since the start of the Rwandan genocide: “There are too many actors, even some from Africa, getting directly involved as tribal politics is given renewed prominence, with ethnic cleansing being prepared and practised.”

According to the International Rescue Committee, the conflict has led to as many as 45 000 deaths every month, with the humanitarian crisis having claimed an estimated 5.4 million lives since 1998.