Navy's most trusted vessel deployed to Côte d' Ivoire
The most trusted ship in the South African navy, the SAS Drakensberg, was deployed last month to evacuate South Africans in Côte d’Ivoire in the event of widespread civil disorder over the results of the recent presidential elections. The ship can hold hundreds of passengers who would be taken to the closest airport.
In its maiden mission of this type, government sources said the SAS Drakensberg was also deployed to West Africa as a possible negotiating venue for the principals of the presidential dispute—internationally recognised president Alassane Ouattara and the former president Laurent Gbagbo, who has refused to cede power since elections in November last year.
At its latest summit in Ethiopia last week the African Union asked a panel of five heads of states to resolve the matter. They are President Jacob Zuma, Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, Chadian President Idriss Déby, the President of Burkina Faso Blaise Compaoré, and Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete.
The panel will set up a team of experts who will visit Côte d’Ivoire and submit proposals on how to resolve the crisis. After this the panel will submit the proposals to Ouattara and Gbagbo.
Helmoed Romer-Heitman of Jane’s Defence Weekly said Zuma—in his capacity as commander-in-chief—ordered the SAS Drakensberg to be dispatched up the West African Coast to ensure a South African military presence should the situation in Côte d’Ivoire deteriorate or, for the secondary purpose of providing a neutral negotiating venue.
“You need a place where people can meet and breakaway rooms when they need separate discussions. There is sufficient communications and security on board and she is fitted with two Oryx helicopters that can fly people in and out if need be,” Romer-Heitman told the Mail & Guardian.
The ship will be well placed to intervene if the AU instructs the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) to deploy East African forces, which can only be brought in by sea.
Romer-Heitman said the ship could also serve as a floating hospital during a military intervention and help to transport supplies and spares for smaller vessels. If the conflict in the country escalates into civil war, it would have the capacity to intervene between the warring parties.
The South African government has repeatedly said that it supports a peaceful resolution, while the Economic Community of West African States, which supports Ouattara, has threatened to use force to unseat Gbagbo.
The defence department said this week that the navy ship “has been on a periodical routine training cruise along the West Coast of Africa since early January 2011 to train junior naval officers”.
“This is part of the Inter-Operability West Exercise with other navies of the west coast countries to promote interoperability of the vessels.” But the department said the vessel was ready for “possible assistance that may be required by the department of international relations and cooperation during the African Union panel negotiations pertaining to the Ivory Coast”.