JOHANNESBURG — South African President Jacob Zuma agreed to withdraw troops from Central African Republic after opposition parties and labor unions criticized a mission that led to the deaths of at least 13 soldiers.
The army’s biggest loss of lives since the end of apartheid in 1994 occurred on March 24 when Seleka rebels entered the capital, Bangui, ousting President Francois Bozize. The South African soldiers were there to protect local military trainers, according to the government.
Zuma faced a backlash since the deaths, with opposition parties questioning the mission’s objectives. He has said the soldiers died defending South African foreign policy and denies accusations they were there doing anything else.
“It’s a humiliation for South Africa,” David Zounmenou, an analyst at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, said by phone. “If South Africa continues taking decisions like this it will weaken its standing on the continent.”
South Africa doesn’t recognize the self-proclaimed president in Central African Republic, Michel Djotodia, and therefore an agreement to keep troops in the country no longer applies, Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Maite Nkoana-Mashabane told reporters in Pretoria Thursday.
“Until the situation is resolved, our troops have been called back home,” she said. “There was no bolting away, because South Africa is an integral part of this continent.”
Seleka began its rebellion in December after accusing Bozize of failing to honor a 2008 peace accord. Zuma sent about 200 soldiers to Bangui this year after the Central African Republic and rebels agreed in January to end fighting and create the unity government. The insurgents resumed combat in March, saying Bozize had failed to meet a new set of demands.
“What makes this intervention even more disturbing is that the deployment was reportedly undertaken against expert military advice, allegedly to protect the business interests of a politically connected elite, both in South Africa and in the Central African Republic,” Helen Zille, the leader of the main opposition Democratic Alliance, said in a April 1 statement.
The Central African Republic has been plagued by violence since independence from France in 1960. At least four battles for Bangui took place from 1996 until 2003, when Bozize toppled predecessor Ange-Felix Patasse, whom he served as army chief.
“We reject any insinuation that these soldiers were sent to the CAR for any reason other than in pursuit of the national interest and the interests of the African continent,” Zuma said at a memorial service for the soldiers on April 2. “Military matters and decisions are not matters that are discussed in public, other than to share broader policy.”
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