Investigation into military accident under way

A military board of inquiry into an accident in which nine soldiers were killed has begun its work, Defence Minister Mosiuoa Lekota said on Wednesday.

Lekota was visiting seven troopers in various Bloemfontein hospitals, who were injured in the anti-aircraft gun accident at the Lohatla training area in the Northern Cape last Friday.

”As a further assurance to the public, we [the South African National Defence Force] do not want to see a repetition of what happened,” said Lekota after visiting the injured troops.

”A vigorous and transparent investigation will be conducted and concluded as soon as possible.”

Lekota said the board of inquiry would be led by a retired officer, Major General Johan Jooste, who was an experienced soldier and not ”beholden” to anybody.

”He would not be shy to point out mistakes where there were. We need this kind of investigation so that no mistake is covered up, and to eliminate all weaknesses, if any.”

Lekota said the board of inquiry must first of all establish the factual cause of the accident.

It would also have to establish any issues of liability, whether criminal or civil, and must make recommendations to prevent further such accidents.

Lekota said the Department of Defence would take all necessary steps to support the families of the dead and injured. This included the preparations of the funerals.

”We will make sure that they receive full military honours and put as much effort into the funerals as resources allow,” said Lekota.

A trust fund had also been set up in an effort to gain public financial support for the families.

Earlier, Lekota, accompanied by the chief of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), General Godfrey Ngwenya, visited three injured soldiers at the Pelonomi Regional Hospital, three more soldiers at Three Military Hospital at Tempe, and one soldier admitted to the Universitas Hospital in Bloemfontein.

Speaking to journalists during the visits, Lekota said by its nature defence was a very dangerous business and soldiers worked with very dangerous weapons.

”Accidents from time to time may occur in reality. It’s like many other occupations, like miners going down into mines, anything can happen.”

Standing by the bedside of Private Butana Mabuso (22) at Three Military Hospital, Lekota said his experience would have changed him into a better soldier.

”Somebody like you would always be very, very conscious, understanding that it is very dangerous equipment. Others would take it for granted because they have not had the experience.”

Mabuso, of 10 Anti-Aircraft Regiment in Kimberley, was admitted for being temporarily paralysed, shocked and traumatised. He was hit in the back by an object when the 35mm MK5 anti-aircraft gun started to misfire wildly.

”You must recover, you will recover. We will look after you with the proper medical attention,” said Lekota.

”I am better now,” said Mabuso.

Two female soldiers treated for shrapnel wounds, also at Three Military hospital, were in good spirits despite their injuries.

They wanted to know if they could go back and finish the exercise.

”It speaks of the quality of persons this country needs in the defence force,” said Lekota in reply, adding that he was inspired by the mood among the injured troops.

The minister also assured those who lost limbs in the accident that they would be looked after and supported.

”All of our members who suffered injuries become our responsibility and remain our responsibility,” said Lekota.

He said some of the injured, who were mostly still young people, would be re-trained subject to their talents and situation.

”Some will be sent for further training at education institutions at the expense of the Department of Defence.”

SANDF chief Ngwenya confirmed that the defence force would help the families of the dead and injured attend a memorial service in Kimberley next Wednesday.

Lekota was expected to visit the rest of the troops busy with Exercise Seboka at Lohatla. — Sapa

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