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Indian soldiers hit most in South Sudan crisis

By Rohit Bansal: When rebels against South Sudan President Salva Kiir Mayardit killed Warrant Officers Dharmesh Sangwan and Kumar Pal Singh of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) Thursday, the toll of Indian military personnel lost there in 2013 mounted to seven.


A third Indian peacekeeper suffered a chest wound.

In April this year, five Indian peacekeepers -- Lt. Col. Mahipal Singh, Naib Subedar Shiv Kumar Pal, Lance Naik Nand Kishore Joshi, Havaldar Bharat Sasmal and Havaldar Hira Lal -- had been slain in Jonglei state of South Sudan.

UNMISS has lost a total of 10 armed personnel in its operations since July 2011 when the world's newest country was born and the UN Mission in Sudan was bifurcated.

With two infantry batallion groups, an engineer company, a signal company and a hospital, India contributes nearly a third of 7,633 uniformed personnel in UNMISS operations, comprising troops, military liaison officers and police forces.

Similar to the ambush in April, Indian soldiers were felled protecting unarmed civilians from a large contingent of armed rebels.

"These gallant soldiers lost their lives while protecting civilians and negotiating their safety," UNMISS Force Commander Maj. Gen. Delali Sakyi said. "They were caught up in fire targeted at civilians."

The high number of casualties are obvious enough because the deployment of Indian forces is mainly in Jonglei, the most dangerous terrain. Jonglei, the largest of the 10 states of South Sudan, spans 122,000 sq km in the east, and has seen hundreds of deaths in recent months.

Special Representative of the Secretary-General Hilde F. Johnson noted that the two Indian soldiers were helping to protect 36 civilians when they were attacked by about 2,000 armed youths.

"(The youths) opened fire and attacked from all directions with the apparent intention of killing the civilians taking shelter there," said Johnson.

"This incident has shocked and stunned us all," Indian ambassador to South Sudan Parmod Bajaj told this IANS columnist over telephone from Juba.

"These young Indian soldiers who were barely 30 and 40 years old had their whole lives in front of them... (This has) been cut short in this mindless attack," he said.

Bajaj himself had to hop on to a special flight to reach Juba following the gruesome killings.

He further told this IANS columnist that requests for assistance by Indian civilians to be evacuated are being collected and some 200 of them had expressed their intent to exit.

But many are already in the queue for scheduled flights from Dubai and Nairobi. The pile up is only because Ethiopian Airways, a mainstay of Indian travellers between Juba and New Delhi, remains suspended.

In the panic, some evacuees have abandoned their cars in the airport parking itself, said Punkaj Gupta, representing a food security firm.

A final view on whether or not to mount a special ferry from Air-India will be taken by cabinet secretary Ajit Seth, along with external affairs and civil aviation secretaries, depending on the number of Indians who still need such help. Many, particularly those who don't own permanent establishments, have already driven off to neighbouring Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia.

Diplomatic sources said a special ferry will thus depend on written inputs from Bajaj as well as Indian envoys in neighbouring East African nations where Indian citizens have already evacuated.

ONGC Videsh, for example, flew out five personnel Saturday. Of the six left in Juba now, more are leaving.

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 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 complain 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.

(Rohit Bansal is chief executive and co-founder, India Strategy Group, Hammurabi and Solomon Consulting, an advisory with expertise in South Sudan. He can be contacted at rohit.bansal@hammurabisolomon.com)

--IANS (Posted on 22-12-2013)

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