Three days ago the SANDF’s UNAMID contingent in Darfur were involved in a high-risk exchange with a number of unknown rebels in Mellit. The details below were provided by the SANDF and make for some gripping reading. Considering previous instances where rebels have opened fire on SANDF patrols, the commander’s refusal to surrender his group’s weapons showed a remarkable level of discipline.
On 18 August 2015 a team of 37 South African National Defence Force (SANDF) members were escorting an United Nations team on a long range patrol to north of the South African Company Operating Base (COB), Mellit in the Darfur Region of Sudan. The patrol was made up of four Mamba Armed Personnel Carriers (APCs), one Recovery Vehicle and two Land Cruisers. The patrol was to a small village, called Selibilo, 51km north of the base. The team was led by Lieutenant (Lt) Phiri, a Platoon Commander from 8 South African Infantry Battalion.
On the way back to the COB the team was ambushed by an unknown Armed Group (AG) and a stand-off ensued between the Peacekeepers and the armed militia. The protection element of the patrol had passed the ambush point when the second group was stopped by three heavily armed soldiers of the militia. SANDF members observed that the some of the AG were armed with an anti-tank weapon (mounted on land cruiser) and 12,7mm machine guns. To the west of the point where the convoy was intercepted, other members of the AG were deployed on a small hillside.
They ordered the section commander to leave the vehicle while pointing weapons at him. At this point, two members of the AG climbed atop one of the APCs – one pointing a weapon at the SANDF light machine gun (LMG) gunner whilst a second armed man removed him from the APC. They reiterated their demand to see the platoon commander and when he arrived they ordered him to surrender and turn over all of his troops’ weapons, or else they indicated that they would kill everyone in the convoy. The platoon commander, Lt Phiri refused.
After two hours of negotiations to return the 7.62mm LMG, the AG told Lt Phiri that his members were currently surrounded by eight vehicles from a southerly direction and six others from the north. Lt Phiri continued to refuse to hand over any of his group’s equipment, which would have included two UN peacekeeping vehicles. A stalemate was reached and the AG informed Lt Phiri that he left them no choice, at which point they assumed firing positions. Lt Phiri deployed his troops on the ground in a battle formation and informed his troops that they would move out of the area with all vehicles, walking alongside them irrespective of the obstruction of the AG.
Lt Phiri and his troops began moving forward, with his troops and the AG directing weapons at each other continuously. As the patrol started moving out of the confrontation on foot, one of the AG members punctured the rear tyre of one of the UN Land Cruisers with a sharp object. An SANDF member observed this and pushed the individual away from the vehicle, whilst being threatened by automatic weapons from the remaining AG members. Lt Phiri instructed the recovery vehicle to come forward and tow the UN vehicle forward along with the rest of the vehicles. As the SANDF APCs moved forward with the peacekeepers alongside, the belligerents ultimately declined to open fire. The peacekeepers managed to move safely out of the danger area and proceed back to the base after returning to their vehicles one kilometer on from the point of interception.
The SANDF has confirmed that the troops who stood their ground during the ambush will be cited for bravery.