Juba, April 12 (IANS) The killers in the tragic ambush of UN peacekeepers in South Sudan that claimed the lives of five Indian Army personnel Tuesday not only outnumbered their target six times over but were also armed with sophisticated weapons, eyewitnesses said.
In comparison, the convoy of 35 UN peacekeepers from India was bogged down by some heavy boring equipment and unarmed technical personnel, numbering around a dozen, even as the soldiers did manage to push back their adversaries, the eyewitnesses added.
The convoy of 11 vehicles was returning from Bor, the capital of Jonglei state in the world's newest country - and Africa's 54th nation - after experts from Ruaha Drilling, an Indian infrastructure company, were being escorted back after spending a month executing a borewell in the difficult swampy conditions.
Ruaha is owned by Manohar Reddy Manda and Bose Reddy, entrepreneurs from Andhra Pradesh.
Besides UN-owned vehicles, four Ruaha vehicles in the middle of the convoy had been badly damaged, a company senior told this IANS columnist, requesting not to be named, as he was not authorised to speak to the media.
Those killed included two UN civilians, four Kenyans affiliated to the contractor and one South Sudanese. Two others, both Indians construction staff, have been wounded too.
Eyewitnesses accessed by this IANS columnist, whose consulting work brings him to South Sudan fairly regularly, said that the Indian peacekeepers had progressed about 40 km from their emanating point.
At around 9 a.m., some 200 armed men waylaid them from one side of the road. Outnumbered and taken by surprise, the men managed to push back even though the attackers had within minutes covered the entire convoy with weapons like anti-tank guns.
Their valour has been appreciated by force commander Major General Dalai Johnson Sakyi, a two-star officer from Ghana, who flew in with Brigadier A. Mistry to the Indian camp, and Hilde F. Johnson, special envoy of the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and head of United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).
(IANS New Delhi bureau adds: the bodies of the five peacekeepers - Lt. Col. Mahipal Singh, Naib Subedar Shiv Kumar Pal, Lance Naik Nand Kishore Joshi, Havaldar Bharat Sasmal and Havaldar Hira Lal - were brought to the Indian capital early Thursday).
In South Sudan, while UN vehicles have often been spared, a major exception being a helicopter shot down in December killing four Russian peacekeepers, ambushes of convoys carrying South Sudan's local forces is common because the road network is minimal.
At the time of independence in July 2011, the nation had barely 200 km of black-top roads. The only other connectivity, thus, is via a decrepit riverine network over the White Nile and seasonal roads made of "morrum" and black cotton soil.
In the parts that experience heavy rains, even this makeshift network becomes un-operational, typically from June until December.
Jonglei, the largest of the 10 states of this country spanning a massive 122,000 sq km in the east, has seen many deaths in recent months, including 150 people during battles between the South Sudanese military and insurgents led by local rebel leader David Yau Yau.
It isn't yet clear if and why Yau was behind the latest attack.
India has currently committed 8,093 soldiers, out of a total of 93,368 UN peacekeepers, across the world. Only Pakistan and Bangladesh have more. The consequent risk to Indian lives is obvious.
But many volunteer, eager to take the risk not only because it adds to their bio-data, but also pays them handsomely, while also protecting their existing pay at home. The government, too, sees merit in committing to UN peacekeeping as it validates India's commitment to undertake international duties.
Critics, however, claim that top contributors - India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Nepal, Egypt, Jordan, Rwanda and Ghana -- are being unfair, putting their men to risk, attracted by compensation that the rich countries refund to them via the UN.
Protection of civilians is one of the principal mandates of UNMISS. India has the highest number in South Sudan, nearly a third out of the 7,000 soldiers, stationed to man vital installations in a land mass spread over 622,000 square km.
Besides two infantry battalions, a communication and signals unit and a field hospital, India will be committing an engineering company to this country in the next few days, officials said.
(Rohit Bansal is chief executive and co-founder, India Strategy Group, Hammurabi & Solomon Consulting, an advisory with expertise in South Sudan. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)