SA troops left in the lurch

Hundreds of South African soldiers are stranded in bases across Sudan's violent Darfur region as they wait for chartered transport aircraft to bring them home.SAVE & SHAREEMAILPRINTThe 800 troops, who should have been withdrawn two weeks ago, are part of a UN and AU peacekeeping mission to Darfur.

South African soldiers have been part of the peacekeeping mission since 2008 in an attempt to quell violence that killed 300000 people and displaced millions. Though the conflict has eased, several SANDF troops have been killed in Darfur.

Last month an SANDF soldier was killed and another injured when an aid convoy they were escorting was ambushed. The ambush occurred two weeks after President Jacob Zuma's February announcement that all SANDF troops would be withdrawn from Sudan by April 1.

Pikkie Greeff, general secretary of the SA National Defence Union, said the union had been inundated with calls for assistance from troops in Sudan. "They have received no word about when or how they are being airlifted, with their situation apparently becoming dire."Messages from troops in Sudan seen by The Times confirm Greeff's assessment of their plight.One message from a soldier based at el-Fashir "super camp" reads: "The president announced in parliament that our mission is terminated by March 31 yet we are still bundled up in a filthy camp and no one knows when we are leaving."Another reads: "For 2 days no water and this place is stinking ..."SANDF spokesman Lieutenant-General Xolani Mabanga said the defence force could not discuss operational matters or the troops' withdrawal "for security reasons".

"The president announced the withdrawal from the mission as April 1. This did not imply that the withdrawal should occur at the end of March. Planning is being done by the relevant authorities. All logistical arrangements in terms of deploying [and returning] troops from their home country to UN/AU mission areas is the UN's responsibility."

Since the start of the Sudan mission troops have been hindered by a lack of air support and obstruction by the Sudanese government, which has denied landing permission for support aircraft. The situation is exacerbated by the poor condition of aircraft in the SAAF's fleet of C130 heavy-lift transports.

It is not the first time that the unavailability of aircraft has left our peacekeepers stranded.In May what is thought to have been a bureaucratic bungle left 850 South African peacekeepers - part of the UN's Force Intervention Brigade, in the DRC - stranded there for nearly a week after a UN-chartered Ethiopian Airlines flight failed to comply with SA Civil Aviation regulations.Of the SAAF's eight C130s, which date back to 1963, four are believed to be non-operational.For the SAAF's C130s to reach the troops in Sudan fuel stops will be necessary which, say military analysts, adds costly delays.

The consequences of the inoperability of the C130s were seen when the SANDF struggled to supply ammunition and equipment to soldiers caught in deadly fighting in the Central African Republic in the Battle of Bangui in 2013.Fifteen South African troops were killed in the fighting - the desperately needed equipment arriving a week after the battle.As the troops in Sudan wait for their lift home, a delegation from US aircraft manufacturing company Lockheed Martin is in South Africa to convince the Defence Department to buy its new state-of-the-art heavy lift transport aircraft, the C130-J.

But defence analysts warn that, though superior to the SAAF's C130s, the C130-J does not meet the military's requirements.Defence analyst Darren Olivier, of Africa Defence Review, said sustained funding of the SAAF's heavy-lift transport squadron was needed to restore all the C130s to flying status and to pay for additional air and ground crew, failing which more of the planes would have to be withdrawn, to the detriment of troops requiring support.

"Then the acquisition of replacements for the C-130s must be speeded up."

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