By Ed Cropley
ROODEWAAL ARTILLERY RANGE, South Africa (Reuters) - South Africa's air force showed off its military might on Thursday with precision bombing and helicopter gunships firing fusillades of rockets just days ahead of an unprecedented "peace enforcing" deployment to eastern Congo.
Two months after 13 troops were killed by rebels in Central African Republic in South Africa's heaviest military losses since the end of apartheid, Pretoria is gearing up to send 1,000 soldiers to Democratic Republic of Congo's volatile border with Rwanda and Uganda.
The force, supported by similar-sized detachments from Malawi and Tanzania, was approved by the United Nations in March for "targeted security operations" as part of U.N. peacekeeping in the region. Its mission is to neutralize rebel groups, including the well-armed M23 rebel movement and other militias.
M23, which U.N. experts say is backed by Uganda and Rwanda even though both countries deny it, has vowed to hit back if attacked, and its fighters were honing their ambush skills during a recent visit by a Reuters reporter.
Its routing of U.N.-backed Congolese troops in November and its brief seizure of the city of Goma give credibility to those threats, but South Africa, the continent's economic giant, has the ability to deploy air power against the Congo insurgents.
At Roodewaal, a bombing range in the northern province of Limpopo, the air force and army staged a mock battle in the bush, with infantry backed by Rooivalk gunships - similar to the U.S. Apache - taking on an imaginary enemy hidden in the scrub.
As well as precision bombing runs by Hawker jets, the simulation included battlefield evacuations via helicopter, an option that was not open to the South African contingent of 200 soldiers attacked in Central African Republic in March.
"We prepare for every eventuality," South African air force deputy commander Major General Gerald Malinga told Reuters after the display. "The basic tenet is that we would like to prevent war, but if war happens we have to respond."
The Congo deployment is also part of Pretoria's push to exert more clout - commercial, diplomatic and military - in the rest of Africa, where emerging players such as China have an increasing role and former colonial powers still have influence.
Although no explicit mention was made of M23, a force that emerged last year from a Tutsi-led rebellion in Congo's east in 2004-2009, South African officers acknowledged the very real dangers of undertaking the unprecedented U.N. operation to "enforce" peace, rather than merely keep it.
"In those missions, time and again, some of us will fall," Air Command chaplain Elbe Vinqi said in a ceremony at the start of the exercise. "In those missions, as well, we may have to kill."
(Editing by Pascal Fletcher)