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Sniper’s bullet killed SA Air Force engineer, wounded pilot: Inside helicopter attack over Congo

Sergeant Vusi Mabena, Major Omolemo Matlapeng and Captain Mathew Allan.

Sergeant Vusi Mabena, Major Omolemo Matlapeng and Captain Mathew Allan.

  • An SA Air Force Oryx helicopter deployed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo was flying alone when it came under attack over the weekend.
  • The incident happened near Kiwanja, a hotbed for clashes since rebels took control of the town.
  • Flight Sergeant Vusi Mabena was killed by the same bullet that hit Major Omolemo Matlapeng in the shoulder.

The flight engineer on a South African Air Force helicopter deployed to the Democratic Republic of the Congo was killed after being hit with a single round, apparently from a sniper rifle.

News24 understands that Flight Sergeant Vusi Mabena was killed in the incident on the Oryx helicopter on Sunday afternoon.

He was sitting behind the pilot in command, Major Omolemo Matlapeng, who was apparently hit in the shoulder by the same bullet.

Co-pilot Captain Mathew Allan managed to fly the Oryx back to Goma, where Matlapeng’s wound was operated on. The incident happened in Kiwanja, some 70km northeast of Goma in the North Kivu province.

Kiwanja has been a hotbed of clashes between the M23 rebels and the Armed Forces of the DRC (FARDC) since October last year when the rebels took control of the town.

A photograph shows the single bullet hole which pierced the window to the right of Matlapeng. News24 understands from sources in the DRC that bullet fragments recovered indicate that the shot was probably from a 7.62-calibre Dragunov sniper rifle. The suspected sniper took position on a ridge where the Oryx, which was in cruise flight and flying low, had crossed.

The Dragunov sniper rifle is manufactured in Russia by the Kalashnikov factory and has been in use since 1963. It is widely used by African armies and rebels alike.

According to South African Air Force sources, Mabena and Matlapeng are from 17 Squadron in Pretoria. Allan is from 15 Squadron in Durban.

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The South Africans are part of the United Nations Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the DRC (Monusco). It is not clear why the Oryx was flying alone, as crews in conflict areas such as the DRC should always fly in pairs, according to the SA Air Force’s operational guidelines.

A Monusco spokesperson said the helicopter had been flying from Beni to Goma when it was hit.

Oryx helicopter

The single bullet hole seen on the window of a South African Air Force Oryx helicopter that came under attack.

A medical evacuation was launched from Goma Airport to one of Monusco’s hospitals, where Matlapeng underwent an operation. Mabena was not killed instantly but died before the crew reached Goma.

According to sources, Mabena was one of the SA Air Force’s experienced operational operators and was in Mozambique’s insurgency-hit Cabo Delgado province until late last year. He was there to maintain the two Oryx helicopters deployed as part of the Southern African Development Community’s Mission in Mozambique (Samim).

Capt Mathew Allan

Captain Mathew Allan

One of his colleagues said the Oryx helicopters had come under fire in the DRC and Mozambique on numerous occasions. The crews were particularly susceptible to small arms ground fire as the helicopters tend to fly low and fast for security reasons, as well as on take-off and landings. The crew members were only protected against ground fire by an armoured plate in their seats.

Fresh clashes in the area north of Kiwanja flared up in January after the M23 rebels were required to withdraw from the territories it occupied under the terms of regional mediation efforts.

The rebels, reportedly supported and armed by Rwanda, earlier announced that they had withdrawn from the towns they occupied but they remained in the area.

Rwanda has denied that it supports the rebels, but the tension between Rwanda and the DRC has continued to intensify after fighter aircraft from the DRC violated Rwandan airspace on three occasions since January. After two of these intrusions, Rwanda issued a warning that it would retaliate if it happened again.

On 24 January, a Sukhoi-25 fighter jet from the DRC again flew over the DRC-Rwandan western border near the town of Kitshanga. Rwanda responded by shooting it down with a missile. Congolese military sources said after spotting the attack, a Sukhoi-25 aircraft triggered its missile defence system to neutralise the shelling.

Meanwhile, Kobus Marais, the DA’s spokesperson on defence, requested Defence Minister Thandi Modise to brief the Joint Standing Committee on Defence on the circumstances surrounding the incident.

He also questioned why the Oryx was flying unaccompanied and whether the South African Rooivalk combat helicopters were still being used to provide armed cover in contested areas.

“If not, we need to know why not. We cannot allow our soldiers to be unnecessarily exposed to dangers on foreign soil if it should have been prevented.”

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