A South African Air Force (SAAF) helicopter deployed under the United Nations (UN) flag was fired upon in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) last week. The SAAF Oryx helicopter, deployed to the DRC as part of the MONUSCO peacekeeping mission, was attacked by suspected rebels on 11 January.
Colonel Louis Kirstein, Acting Director, SANDF Corporate Communication, said that “the incident took place during a routine task to fly the Deputy Force Commander to various bases in Beni region of the Eastern DRC.”
According to the UN Mission, the attack took place near Erengeti in Beni territory in Congo’s North Kivu province. No injuries were reported and the helicopter suffered “little damage” before landing safely. An investigation is underway, but Allied Defense Forces (ADF) rebels were suspected in the attack.
Associated Press reports that eastern Congo is home to a myriad of armed groups, many vying for control of the region’s vast mineral resources. Beni territory has been the site of repeated attacks by ADF rebels, who have origins in neighbouring Uganda. Those attacks have killed at least 500 civilians since October 2014, according to the UN.
The SAAF operates a number of Oryx medium transport helicopters and three Rooivalk attack helicopters on behalf of the UN in the DRC. They form part of the aviation unit of MONUSCO and its Force Intervention Brigade (FIB). South Africa, Tanzania and Malawi’s soldiers are all part of the UN intervention brigade to bring the various rebel groups operating in the east of the DRC under control.
The incident is not the first time a SAAF helicopter has been hit by small arms fire in the DRC. On 4 May 2015, several shots from a small calibre weapon were fired in the direction of an Oryx flying between the towns of Beni and Buria. One bullet hit the fuel tank causing a minor fuel leak. The pilot flew the aircraft out of the danger zone and landed at Mavivi airport near Beni.
The helicopter was part of a routine visit to the far north-eastern area of the country by then-MONUSCO Force Commander, Lieutenant General Santos Cruz.