Zuma tribute to South Africa troops killed in CAR

Relatives of the South African soldiers who died during a battle with rebels in the Central African Republic attend a memorial service at the Swartzkop Air Force Base in Pretoria on 2 April 2013 Relatives of the dead soldiers as well as military personnel attended the service

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South Africa's President Jacob Zuma has paid tribute to 13 soldiers killed in the recent rebellion in the Central African Republic (CAR).

At the memorial service, he said they died in CAR's capital Bangui defending South Africa's commitment to promoting peace and stability in Africa.

The soldiers were killed as rebels seized power more than a week ago.

The governing ANC party has rejected accusations that the troops were in CAR because it has mining interests there.

The South African government says they were training government forces and providing security.

Start Quote

Jacob Zuma on 2 April 2013

No country discusses its military strategy in public in the manner in which South Africa is expected to do”

End Quote Jacob Zuma South Africa's president

The South African National Defence Union (SANDU), representing the soldiers, and the main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party is calling for the withdrawal of troops.

South Africa's Times newspaper reports from Bangui that rebels have been seen driving around in captured South African military vehicles.

The vehicles included a Toyota Landcruiser marked with the insignia of Operation Vimbezela, the South African military mission in CAR. A machine gun was mounted on the roof of the vehicle, it reports.

'Better Africa'

The memorial took place in an aircraft hanger at the Swartkop air base in the South African capital, Pretoria.

"We salute them and honour them for the supreme sacrifice they have paid for the achievement of peace in Africa," Mr Zuma said, in comments carried on his official website.

South Africa's foreign policy was premised on the "vision of building a better Africa, a better world", he added.

Mr Zuma has said South Africa's 200 soldiers in Bangui were outnumbered in a nine-hour "high tempo" battle after "bandits" attacked them at their base on the weekend of 23-24 March.

As well as the 13 dead, another 27 soldiers were injured - the highest number of casualties suffered by South Africa's army since white minority rule ended in 1994.

Mr Zuma said the tragedy should not be used to pursue party political goals.

Seleka rebels guard presidential compound in Bangui. 25 March 2013 The CAR rebels are in control of the presidential mansion

"No country discusses its military strategy in public in the manner in which South Africa is expected to do.... 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," he said.

The president's comments come as political controversy rages about the deployment of the troops.

The DA has said it will present a motion to parliament demanding the withdrawal of South African troops from CAR.

Its leader Helen Zille said it looked as if the South Africans were in CAR to defend the regime of ousted President Francois Bozize.

The mission "was reportedly undertaken against expert military advice" and was "allegedly to protect the business interests of a politically connected elite, both in South Africa and the Central African Republic", she said.

On Monday, the ANC threatened the Mail and Guardian newspaper with legal action for claiming the troops were deployed to defend its mining interests in CAR, which has gold and uranium.

It accused the paper of urinating "on the graves of gallant fighters who put their lives on the line in service of our country and our continent".

The Mail and Guardian said it stood by its report.

Last week, Mr Zuma said South Africa had deployed 200 troops to CAR in January to help train the army and VIP protection unit.

The Seleka rebel group seized power after a peace deal negotiated with Mr Bozize collapsed.

It accused South African troops in CAR of being "mercenaries".

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