JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Most of the 200 South African troops in the Central African Republic have been withdrawn from the country where 13 died as rebels ousted the president, the soldiers' union said Tuesday.
Military spokesman Brig. Gen. Xolani Mabanga said he could not comment on reports that the soldiers had been moved to either Congo or Uganda.
"I will only confirm that we still have troops and equipment in the Central African Republic," he said. He refused to say how many soldiers remained.
The news comes amid strident debate about why the troops were deployed and accusations that they were sent to protect the business interests of a company allied to the governing African National Congress — charges President Jacob Zuma denied Tuesday.
Pikkie Greeff, national secretary of the South African National Defense Union, told The Associated Press that "the biggest bulk" of the 200 soldiers had been withdrawn during the weekend. He said they had been taken across the Ubangui River into Congo.
Other media reports suggested the soldiers had been taken to Uganda.
Greeff said it was unclear whether the soldiers were to be deployed in other countries where South African troops are participating in peacekeeping missions, or whether they were being prepared for an attack on Bangui, the Central African capital. South African defense officials say some 200 soldiers fought off about 3,000 rebels who entered the capital on March 23 and eventually overthrew the government. Hundreds of rebels including youngsters were killed before the rebels called a truce.
President Jacob Zuma had resisted calls to bring the troops home. The country's biggest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, has said it will table a resolution in Parliament on Tuesday to compel Zuma to withdraw the troops. Greeff's union last week threatened to go to the constitutional court to ask it to rule the deployment unconstitutional.
At a memorial service for the dead servicemen, Zuma lambasted his critics, accusing them of "trying to dishonor the memory of our heroes by peddling various unfounded allegations and conspiracy theories."
He said the soldiers must be honored "for the supreme sacrifice they paid for the achievement of peace in Africa."
He warned critics that "Those who are engaging in this game should be careful not to endanger both the national interest and the security of the republic while pursuing party political goals."
Zuma said South African soldiers were sent to help train the army of Central African Republic as part of a bilateral defense agreement signed in 2007. Greeff said there were between 28 and 30 trainers. Zuma said he agreed to deploy an additional 200 troops late last year when the security situation deteriorated.
"They were not deployed to train but as a protection force for the trainers," Zuma said.
Greeff said that contradicts Zuma's explanation to Parliament's defense committee in early January that the soldiers would help with training and capacity building. The union had said that made no sense as the elite Special Forces and paratroopers deployed would not be a logical choice for trainers.
Critics say that if Zuma misled Parliament, he could be impeached.
Greeff said Zuma's explanation raised even more questions about the military's mission in Central African Republic.
While Zuma has said the mission was part of South Africa's larger goal of helping to bring peace and security in Africa, critics ask how that aim could be met by having troops defend President Francois Bozize, a man who took power in a 2003 coup and then won a dubious election that excluded the man he had ousted.
Bozize fled the country and is seeking asylum in the West African state of Benin.
Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille said Monday that the deployment "was reportedly undertaken against expert military advice" and that its aim was "allegedly to protect the business interests of a politically connected elite, both in South Africa and the Central African Republic."
Zuma is heading to Chad for a summit Wednesday with Central African leaders about the crisis in the Central African Republic. Rebel leader Michel Djotobia has declared himself president and says he will rule until elections scheduled in 2016.