South Africa's leading opposition party on Monday urged President Jacob Zuma to withdraw troops from Central African Republic, where 13 South African troops were killed in the recent rebellion.
There are suggestions that Zuma should be impeached for allegedly misleading parliament about the deployment of South African troops in Central African Republic.
Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille's announcement that her party will present a motion in parliament Tuesday to demand the withdrawal of South African troops, comes amid increasingly angry debate over why the soldiers were deployed to Central African Republic at all, and suggestions they were sent to protect mining interests of South Africa's governing African National Congress. The ANC denies it has any business in the country rich in diamonds, uranium and other resources.
The South African soldiers were killed in a March 24 battle in which rebels took the Central African Republic's capital, Bangui. President Francois Bozize fled to neighboring Cameroon and has asked for asylum in the West African state of Benin.
There are also calls for Zuma to report Central African rebel leader Michel Djotodia to the International Criminal Court at The Hague for using child soldiers. The South African National Defense Force Union, a trade union of soldiers, said Monday the South African government is legally bound ask the ICC to indict Djotodia and his Seleka rebels over child soldiers.
South African soldiers who fought in Central African Republic said they were appalled to find out they had killed some youngsters among the rebels.
"It was only after the firing had stopped that we saw we had killed kids," said one paratrooper, among the 27 wounded who were flown home for treatment, quoted by The Sunday Times of Johannesburg. "We did not come here for this ... to kill kids. It makes you sick. They were crying for help ... calling for (their) moms."
Zuma told parliament's defense committee that the South African soldiers were training CAR troops and would help with disarming and demobilization under a peace agreement that fell apart. But the trade union says the elite paratroopers and Special Forces deployed in Central African Republic are an unlikely choice to do military training.
Business Day newspaper asked in an editorial "Did President Jacob Zuma mislead Parliament about their deployment? And if he did, is that an impeachable offense?"
It noted that Bozize had come to South Africa and met Zuma just days before his overthrow, presumably to plead for further military assistance or report his days were numbered. "There are red lights flashing. ... For South Africans, the question is whether Mr. Zuma knew after Mr. Bozize's visit that the situation was critical. If he did, why did he not withdraw the troops or reinforce them?" the newspaper asked.
Zuma authorized the deployment of 400 soldiers but only 200 were sent in January. Since the battle — defense officials say the 200 soldiers fought some 3,000 rebels, killing hundreds before a truce was reached — Zuma said that instead of withdrawing troops he was considering sending reinforcements.
It appears a strange suggestion given that the bilateral agreement was signed with an ousted president and that rebel leader Djotodia, whom the South African soldiers fought, has declared himself president and said he intends to stay in power until elections scheduled in 2016.
Opposition leader Zille said "The conclusion is inescapable that the South African troops were deployed to defend the faltering and dictatorial Bozize regime." Bozize seized power in a coup in 2003 and was elected in dubious 2005 elections that excluded the man he had ousted.
Zille said the mission "was reportedly undertaken against expert military advice." And that its aim was "allegedly to protect the business interests of a politically connected elite, both in South Africa and the Central African Republic."
"If this is so, President Zuma's position both as president of the republic and commander in chief of the armed forces, becomes untenable," she told a news conference. "We believe that our troops should be withdrawn immediately. To this end, the DA will table an urgent parliamentary resolution ... to compel the president to bring our soldiers back home."
The Mail and Guardian newspaper reported extensively on the alleged business interests, saying South Africa's former defense minister signed a cooperation agreement with the CAR covering defense, minerals and energy in 2006. As a result, a company was set up with shareholders including an ANC veteran of the liberation war and the Chancellor House Trust that serves as a fundraiser for the ANC, it said. The company, a joint venture with the CAR government, was to serve as a national diamond exporter, buying diamonds from the country's small-scale miners, The Mail and Guardian reported.
A statement Monday from ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu said, "The ANC rejects with contempt the damaging and malicious claim by The Mail and Guardian that South African soldiers were sent to the Central African Republic to protect ANC business interests." It added that "the ANC as an organization does not have business interests in CAR."
The ANC threatened to sue the newspaper.
Zuma is to attend a conference Wednesday in Chad with leaders from Central Africa to discuss the crisis in the Central African Republic.