Rebels Versus Killer Copters in Bloody Eastern Congo

South African firepower primed for civil war intervention

Rebels Versus Killer Copters in Bloody Eastern Congo Rebels Versus Killer Copters in Bloody Eastern Congo

Uncategorized July 15, 2013 0

Rooivalk copter. VEC Engineering Consultancy photo Rebels Versus Killer Copters in Bloody Eastern Congo South African firepower primed for civil war intervention A tenuous... Rebels Versus Killer Copters in Bloody Eastern Congo
Rooivalk copter. VEC Engineering Consultancy photo

Rebels Versus Killer Copters in Bloody Eastern Congo

South African firepower primed for civil war intervention

A tenuous peace collapsed in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo on July 14. Rebels from the M23 movement and government troops opened fire on each other with guns and artillery, sending thousands of civilians running for cover. As the fighting escalates, a powerful and secretive South African intervention force, tasked by the U.N. with protecting bystanders, is prepping its heavy weapons. The arsenal apparently includes some of the world’s most sophisticated, and deadly, attack helicopters.

South Africa’s AH-2 Rooivalk copter comes equipped with high-tech sensors and a battery of guns, shrapnel-spreading rockets and guided missiles. If the two Rooivalks reported to be in eastern Congo fly into action, it could mean devastating casualties for the possibly already-battered M23 fighters. “We may have to kill,” South African air commander Elbe Vinqi warned in May as his troops and warplanes prepared to deploy to Congo.

Congolese troops on the front line near Goma. Timo Mueller photo

Disguised as women

The fighting kicked off on a Sunday afternoon following the breakdown of peace talks between M23 and government officials. At least 100 rebels disguised in women’s clothes slipped into Congo from Rwanda, reinforcing potentially hundreds of M23 fighters already in the country. M23 is largely composed of longtime rebels who had joined the Congolese army only to grow disaffected again last year. The groups is allegedly backed by Rwanda’s Tutsi minority, themselves hardened survivors of the mid-1990s attempted genocide in that country.

M23, named for the date — March 23, 2009 — that the rebels joined the Congolese army in hopes of integrating into the government, formed in mid-2012 and that winter defeated Congolese troops in Goma, the major city of remote, mineral-rich eastern Congo. The 17,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force in Congo was caught off guard as gun battles shattered the calm and tens of thousands of refugees packed the red-clay roads.

M23 agreed to withdraw from Goma on the promise of peace talks. Violence briefly flared again in May, and as negotiations finally faltered last week rebel and government reinforcements rushed to join their comrades. “We just heard rounds of artillery fire north of Kanyarushinya, Goma,” reported Timo Mueller, a field worker for Enough!, a nonprofit advocacy group focused on Central Africa. “The fighting seems way more serious than the one in May,” Mueller added.

A U.N. vehicle speeds toward the Congo fighting. Timo Mueller photo

Hard blue helmets

The U.N. force in Congo in the past has been accused of weakness and passivity, its blue-helmet-wearing troops simply stepping aside when challenged by rebels or abuses by Congolese troops. But after the M23's offensive last year the world body moved to boost its fighting ability.

The U.N. stood up a new, 3,000-strong intervention brigade for Congo, largely staffed by experienced South African troops equipped with artillery and helicopters. The South Africans were a controversial choice. Cape Town’s army had been bloodied while intervening in another rebellion in Central African Republic in March. Thirteen South African troops died, and the government resolved to fight harder. “We prepare for every eventuality," air force deputy commander Maj. Gen. Gerald Malinga told Reuters.

South African soldiers and equipment arrived in Congo as early as April without the South African parliament being informed. The Defense Ministry refused to say what kind of equipment was being sent abroad, but a photo acquired by a member of parliament purported to show a Rooivalk helicopter being unloaded in Congo from a chartered cargo plane. Sources told IOLNews that two of the copters would be sent to Congo.

More than any other weapon, the powerful Rooivalks — Africa’s answer to the U.S. Apache gunship — could tip the balance of power in favor of the South Africans. “A single, well-armed Rooivalk could have prevented most of the deaths in [Central African Republic],” South Africa’s Mail and Guardian newspaper stated.

As the battle heated up on July 14 and 15, the U.N. certainly seemed confident it could defeat the rebels should the Congolese army fail. “Any attempt by the M23 to advance toward Goma will be considered a direct threat to civilians,” the U.N. warned. The world body “has put its troops on high alert and stand ready to take any necessary measures, including the use of lethal force,” Mueller reported.

By the middle of the second day of fighting, the Congolese government admitted to losing dozen soldiers and claimed to have killed 120 rebels, a figure that’s impossible to verify. M23 insisted it has “efficiently kept its positions.” The U.N. said it had sent helicopters on reconnaissance flights, but it seemed South African troops and their deadly copters had not opened fire — yet.

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