South Africa lacks the airlift capacity to quickly extract its troops from the Central African Republic (CAR), a defence expert says.
This would leave the remaining 200-odd soldiers in peril after rebels reportedly pushed through their lines and killed at least six before seizing the capital Bangui.
CAR President Francois Bozize was believed to have fled the country on Sunday as the capital fell amid heavy fighting.
A witness said at least six South African soldiers were killed in clashes with the rebels. A UN source said the South Africans, in the country to train the army along with hundreds of regional peacekeepers, were preparing to leave.
Meanwhile, Eric Massi, a spokesman for the rebel alliance, known as Seleka, said: “The palace has just fallen. We have the palace.”
The rebels had fought their way to the northern suburbs of the riverside capital late on Saturday before an overnight lull in the fighting. on Sunday morning, heavy-weapons fire erupted across Bangui.
Massi said the rebels had broken through a line of South African soldiers during their push into the city. About 200 South African troops, including special forces and paratroopers, are in the CAR.
Reinforcements were sent by President Jacob Zuma in January to protect those already there as rebels trying to topple Bozize advanced on Bangui.
France and regional African governments also intervened militarily, and Seleka signed a peace deal with Bozize on January 11.
But Seleka renewed hostilities on Friday, saying Bozize had reneged on the peace deal.
Regional peacekeeping sources said the South Africans fought alongside the CAR army on Saturday.
“I saw the bodies of six South African soldiers. They had all been shot,” a witness said. “Their vehicles were also destroyed. Other South African soldiers came to recover the bodies.”
SANDF Brigadier-General Xolani Mabanga said:
“Following the engagement between the SANDF members and CAR rebels, there were some casualties from both sides.
“We are at the moment still trying to assess the information from the people on the ground. We cannot, therefore confirm any figures.”
The situation was calm by Sunday afternoon and there was no known threat to the lives of other South African soldiers.
Mabanga said the contact between SANDF members and CAR rebels took place on Saturday at an SANDF base on the outskirts of Bangui. There also were other isolated incidents.
The SANDF had been deploying troops to the CAR since 2007 following a memorandum of understanding between the two countries.
“The chief of the SANDF has emphasised that the SANDF reserves the right, at all times, to act decisively in defence of its members and assets deployed on the ground in CAR.
“I cannot confirm we were fighting alongside (the CAR army), but we fell under attack and defended ourselves, and we repulsed the attackers,” Mabanga told news channel eNCA.
A source with the UN in Bangui said South African troops were preparing to leave the country.
“They took substantial losses and have asked for French support to load their troops and take off,” said the source.
She added that she had heard that between two and 12 South African soldiers had died.
Defence analyst Helmoed-Römer Heitman said a decision on whether to stay and send reinforcements or evacuate needed to be taken fast, based on a proper intelligence assessment.
However, South Africa didn’t have the ability to quickly reinforce or extract its troops, he claimed.
One option would be for them to make for the Oubangui River, blow up their vehicles and cross over to the Democratic Republic of Congo. This would be embarrassing, but “better than body bags”.
From Addis Ababa, the head of the AU Commission strongly condemned the seizure of power by rebels and called for member nations to take unified and decisive action.
“African Union statutes envisage, in the case of an anti-constitutional change of power, the country’s suspension from AU activities, the complete isolation of those responsible and the adoption of sanctions against them,” AU Commission chairwoman Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma said.
DA defence spokesman David Maynier said the deployment had been a complete disaster.