Rifleman Moalosi Albert Mokhothu of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) was killed in combat yesterday morning during an attack by a Mai Mai militia on the town of Butembo in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

Two other SANDF soldiers, Rifleman Sidumo Simon Mbhamali and Corporal Bonginkosi David Phakathi, were wounded. Mbhamali with a neck wound that has left him in critical condition and Phakathi with a minor hand injury. Both were evacuated to the Level III trauma hospital in Goma by an Oryx helicopter of the South African Air Force.

All three were members of a small detachment of soldiers from the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), part of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the DRC, MONUSCO.

The attack by the Mai Mai militia began at 06:30 local time, with simultaneous assaults on the town hall, central prison and other locations. It’s unclear whether the MONUSCO detachment was an initial target or whether, as some reports suggest, the peacekeepers came under attack because they provided assistance to the local police and soldiers from FARDC, the DRC national armed forces.

Four Mai Mai militia members were killed and two captured.

It’s also not yet clear at the time of writing which Mai Mai group was responsible, with early reports being conflicting. The two main Mai Mai groups operating in and around Butembo are Mai Mai Mazembe and Mai Mai Corps du Christ, both of which set up a combined base on Mount Carmel just outside the town and have carried out multiple incursions into the town. They style themselves as patriotic self defence units fighting against both foreign forces and on occasion the central government and exist in a politically and strategically ambivalent state, sometimes being backed by local government and sometimes being attacked by it.
This base was assaulted by FARDC on 15 December, with many Mai Mai members taken into custody and some of the leaders handing themselves over to MONUSCO, which raises the possibility that yesterday’s attack might have been a retaliation. There is however insufficient evidence to come to an unambiguous conclusion.

The death of Rifleman Mokhothu highlights how dangerous the ongoing instability, and continued presence of non-state armed groups, remains to those tasked with protecting the Congolese people. The FIB’s original purpose was to neutralise groups like these, but their mission has been hampered by the DRC government’s lack of will to take on groups that remain politically useful to it. Without the necessary level of cooperation and political will the initial momentum achieved against M23 will be lost entirely and the FIB will become just another statically-deployed set of peacekeepers.

Rifleman Mokhutu deserved better, as do the comrades he has left behind in the field. The FIB should be used in line with its mandate, given a freer hand in neutralising armed groups and provided with the cooperation from the DRC that it needs.