South African army denies that Sudan army was threatening its peacekeepers
UPDATE 23:58 (EAT) The United Nations on Tuesday denied a media report that Sudanese troops held South African peacekeepers in Darfur hostage so Sudanese President Omar Al Bashir could leave South Africa and avoid being arrested to face genocide charges. The South African National Defence Force also fiercely denies the reports. Al Bashir was attending an African Union summit in South Africa on Sunday and Monday. The High Court had ordered to prevent him from leaving South Africa on Monday. Hours later it ordered an arrest warrant, to hand him over to the International Criminal Court.
According to South African Network 24, about 1,400 South African soldiers in Darfur were surrounded by heavily armed Sudanese soldiers in the UN military bases in Kutum, Mellit, and Malha. South African troops were placed in a state of combat readiness. All troops had to be in combat gear, fully armed, and positioned in bunkers and against embankments. “We were so scared – we were surrounded by soldiers. We handed out extra ammunition to all our troops in case they needed it,” said one South African soldier in Sudan on Tuesday to News 24. The UN pointed out erroneous reporting related to the number of SA troops in Darfur, confirming only 802 SANDF troops at the basis in northern Darfur.
"South Africa currently has 802 members of an infantry battalion deployed in Kutum, Malha and Mellit team sites in North Darfur. We can confirm that the mission's South African troops were not held hostage or under any threat as reported in the media," U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq said in a statement.
The SA National Defence Force on Tuesday reacted according to the same newsnetwork with “utter dismay” to report: “There is no truth in these allegations. There is equally no substance to support these allegations. The SANDF did not come under any threat during this period,” it said in a statement. Earlier the SANDF said that there was 'Sudan military traffic', but it considered the Sudanese military moves as 'no serious threat to SA troops'. According to the national broadcaster SABC, it is “normal procedure” for troops to take up combat postures while the Sudanese army moved to reinforce their own battalions based in the same area.
However, the South African National Defence Union spokesman, Pikkie Greeff, confirmed the first News24 report according to the Times-website. “The Sudanese army only withdrew from their position once Bashir left South Africa. This would boil down to blackmail by threatening someone with war.” Greeff said he has no reason to doubt the reports because they come from the soldiers. “We are concerned about the safety of our soldiers because they are there as peacekeepers and not there for conventional war. Zuma must take a firm stand on this issue,” he added.
The deployment of Sudanese troops and threats against South Africa started shortly after Al Bashir left for the 25th African Union summit near Johannesburg on Saturday. “Vehicles approached our bases and the commander placed us on State 2 of readiness,” said another soldier. Another soldier said if the situation got out of hand, “we would have had to surrender to save our lives, because you can’t fight a country’s army with a poorly equipped battalion”.
The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) has been battling for years to get proper combat gear and armoured vehicles to its troops in Darfur. The delivery has consistently been blocked by the Sudanese government, which, on more than one occasion, prohibited South African flights from entering its airspace, the newsagency reports.
“I am so thankful that South Africa did not arrest Al Bashir. The battalion commander said that after Al Bashir touched down safely in Khartoum, all the Sudanese troops were withdrawn,” reads a message sent by a soldier in Darfur to his friends in South Africa.
At a briefing last week, SA army chief Lieutenant-General Vusi Masondo said the Sudanese troops and rebels in that country were much better equipped than the South Africans, which made it difficult to maintain order. “Our nerves were shot and we were very relieved when the militants withdrew on Monday evening. We knew we were sitting ducks,” said a South African soldier.
The joint peacekeeping mission Unamid said it was unaware of the situation.
Military expert Helmoed-Römer Heitman said if the events were true, it was blatant intimidation. “If the threatening situation is confirmed, South Africa has no other option than to withdraw its troops from such an impossible situation,” Heitman said. The Sudan Armed Forces denied on Tuesday its troops had surrounded bases in Darfur where South African peacekeeping forces are stationed. "There is no military conflict between the two nations to involve the army," spokesman Sawarmi Khaled told Bloomberg.
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