JOHANNESBURG (AP) — The South African government faced tough questions Wednesday about its military mission in the Central African Republic after 13 of its soldiers were killed by rebels there last week.
South Africa's political opposition called for a parliamentary inquiry into what the troops were doing in Central African Republic amid allegations that their tasks included the protection of Francois Bozize, the president who fled to Cameroon after his ouster.
South African authorities have denied deploying a presidential bodyguard, saying the original mission was to train the national army and that more forces went to protect South African "assets" as security deteriorated. The force of about 200 soldiers fought a much larger group of well-armed rebels in the capital, Bangui, before a truce was reached.
The South African contingent remained in the Central African Republic on Wednesday, said Brig. Gen. Xolani Mabanga, a military spokesman.
"They are still safe," Mabanga told The Associated Press. "The situation is still calm."
Yet the mandate of the battered South African force, based on a deal with an ousted government, was precarious at best. Allegations that Bozize was corrupt and a power-monger, cited by rebels as the reason for their uprising, have undercut South Africa's assertions that it was contributing to peace and stability.
The uproar comes as South Africa hosts the leaders of Brazil, Russia, India and China at the BRICS summit in Durban, an event that allows it to showcase its ambitions as a leader beyond its borders.
South Africa has a history of contributing to peacekeeping missions on the continent. According to Mabanga, it currently has troops in Congo under United Nations auspices, in Sudan's Darfur region under a mandate approved by the U.N. and African Union, and in a maritime security operation in Mozambique under a bilateral deal.
Jeff Dubazana, spokesman for the South African National Defense Union, said troops involved in the battle had told his organization that they were attacked not just by advancing rebels, but also rebellious forces under Bozize's command.
"We were a stumbling block toward achieving their mission, which was to topple Bozize," Dubazana said. The military union said South African troops had been instructed to protect the presidential palace and other government institutions.
In addition to the troop deaths, 27 South African soldiers were wounded in the battle that South Africa's military chief, Solly Shoke, said lasted 13 hours. Some accounts suggest rebel losses were far higher, running into the hundreds.
Dubazana said the reports of heavy rebel casualties reflected the high caliber of the South African troops, which he described as "highly specialized units" that "mainly deal with sensitive and dangerous missions" and were not likely to have had a training role in the Central African Republic.
The South African military on Tuesday released the names of the slain soldiers, including two corporals, two lance corporals and nine riflemen. It said they belonged to the 1 Parachute Battalion unit, based in Bloemfontein city. The battalion was among units that contributed to a South African peacekeeping mission in Burundi a decade ago.
The Citizen, a South African newspaper, quoted two unidentified South African soldiers wounded in the battle as saying the South African force had been spread around Bangui, protecting Bozize and guarding buildings. They also said they were caught in cross-fire between loyalist troops and rebels.
"We were positioned all over the city," one of the soldiers told the newspaper. "We had no real chance of holding on to every position."
The comments contradicted assertions by the South African military command that the forces were concentrated at a base that came under attack.
A couple of dozen South African troops had been in the Central African Republic for several years, but the government announced in January that it was sending hundreds more to the rebellion-prone nation. Critics have questioned why the deployment stemmed from a bilateral deal with Bozize, rather than under an international mandate common to peacekeeping missions.
Bantu Holomisa, an opposition lawmaker, wrote an open letter urging parliament to hold a hearing on the South African military mission.
Holomisa said the government had given "conflicting reports" about the mission's motive, and that authorities should clarify what national assets needed protection, including possible mineral rights in the resource-rich Central African Republic, also known by its acronymn CAR.
"We cannot accept the current explanations of what is going on," he wrote. "South Africans are in the dark about what circumstances led to the deployment of our service men and women in the CAR."