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S.Africa pulls troops from C.Africa after deadly firefight

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

President Jacob Zuma announced Thursday that South Africa will pull troops out of the Central African Republic, after 13 paratroopers died in a nine-hour firefight with rebels.

"We have taken a decision to withdraw our soldiers," Zuma said, as he faced a firestorm of critism over South Africa's biggest military loss since the end of apartheid.

At least 13 troops died and 27 were wounded on March 23 when they came under fire from around 3,000 Seleka rebel fighters near the capital Bangui.

Zuma said the decision to pull out remaining troops was made because the overthrow of Francois Bozize's government effectively ended a bilateral deal that resulted in troops being deployed.

"Our mission was to help train the soldiers, since the coup and the self-appointment of rebels, it was clear that the government is no longer there," Zuma said, according to state broadcaster SABC.

As the situation on the ground deteriorated last year South Africa had 26 troops deployed to help with training in the troubled Saharan nation, which has suffered repeated coups since independence in 1960.

In December a decision was taken to send around 200 more troops to protect the trainers.

It emerged in 2011 that the troops also had a mandate to protect Bozize, who himself seized power in a coup and later won a flawed presidential election.

With the South African government offering few details about the mission, deployment or rules of engagement, accusations have swirled that the mission morphed to match business interests of the ruling ANC.

On Thursday defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula denied those allegations, saying the mission was about making Africa more peaceful.

"We will always be there to assist," she said. "There has to be peace and stability in the continent, we do not want war in the continent."

She also added that the mission to protect Bozize ended in 2008.

Mapisa-Nqakula did acknowledge that intelligence failed to predict the attack, but insisted the South African base had only come under fire because it was on the rebels' route to Bozize's palace in Bangui.

Opposition parties have called for an independent commission of inquiry.

"President Zuma must come home and institute an independent commission of inquiry to get to the bottom of this debacle," United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa said.

"Serious allegations have been made that South African National Defence Force troops were sent to the CAR to protect his party's interests."

The main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) welcomed Zuma's decision to bring back home the troops.

"This is especially welcoming news for the family and friends of the troops stationed in the CAR," DA leader Helen Zille said in a statement Thursday.

The opposition wants Zuma to ensure that "our soldiers are returned to South African soil immediately."

The opposition however still demands "a full explanation of why South African troops were deployed in the CAR in the first place." On Tuesday African leaders, including Zuma, met in Chad where they said they would not recognise Central African Republic's new self-proclaimed leader.

"The leadership of our continent is showing no tolerance to unlawful changes of governments," said South African International Relations minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130404/safrica-pulls-troops-cafrica-after-deadly-firefight