CAPE TOWN, Oct 27, 2004 (Reuters) - South African soldiers are heading to Iraq in growing numbers to take up well-paid jobs with private security firms, sometimes deserting active duty at home, the defence minister said on Wednesday.
Mosiuoa Lekota said this contravened South African anti-mercenary laws and contradicted government policy to keep out of the Iraq conflict. "We are dealing with this issue quite firmly, it raises the very serious issue of loyalty to this country and the national defence force," he told reporters in parliament, adding that a number of active duty soldiers faced prosecution for desertion.
The government estimates about 100 former and current soldiers from South Africa's well-trained military are working for international security agencies in Iraq, with salaries of up to $12,000 a month far higher than they can earn back home.
Lekota said it was totally unacceptable that serving officers and members of South Africa's military should act in defiance of the state's position.
"South African's position, as everybody is aware, was to resist involvement in that theatre of conflict," he said.
The soldiers had either quit the army, were looking to resign or had left their posts without leave. All but one of the soldiers were white males, he added.
"In terms of the Foreign Military Assistance Act this is a transgression, particularly for the serving members of the national defence force and other security agencies."
The Act outlaws South African civilian involvement in foreign conflicts. Lekota added that mercenaries were a threat to democracies across the world, and had to be "nipped in the bud".