* At least 13 dead after nine-hour fire-fight
* Heaviest military losses since apartheid
* Doubts over future deployments in Africa (Adds analyst, writes through)
By Ed Cropley
PRETORIA, March 25 (Reuters) - The death of 13 South African soldiers in fighting against rebels in Central African Republic (CAR) is Pretoria's worst military setback since the end of apartheid and puts a dent in any ambitions it has of becoming a continental superpower.
To a post-apartheid public not used to the sight of body bags returning from foreign military theatres, President Jacob Zuma's confirmation on Monday of a bloody nine-hour firefight in an impoverished but mineral-rich country 3,500 km (2,200 miles) away came as a shock.
"Homeward bound - in coffins," the late edition of Johannesburg's Star newspaper said in a front-page headline.
A sombre Zuma paid tribute to the troops, saying the 200-strong force held off 1,000 "bandits" attacking a base near Bangui, the coup-prone former French colony's capital, which fell hours later to the rebel advance.
He said the setback would not get in the way of regional political and diplomatic aspirations of Africa's biggest economy which, since the end of white rule in 1994, has been a standard bearer for democracy and the rule of law.
"The actions of these bandits will not deter us from our responsibility of working for peace and stability in Africa and of supporting the prevention of the military overthrow of constitutionally elected governments," he said.
The debacle has sparked intense criticism of South African policy in its own backyard.
The opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) called for a full inquiry into what it said was a "highly questionable deployment" of 200 troops into a de facto civil war without the support of helicopter gunships or military transport aircraft.
More scathing was the attack from within the military's own ranks, questioning Zuma's support for now-ousted CAR leader Francois Bozize, a veteran military strongman who served as a general in the 1977-79 "Empire" of dictator Jean-Bedel Bokassa.
Bozize seized power in a 2003 coup before winning an election two years later, and signing a deal in 2007 with then-President Thabo Mbeki to have 20-odd South African trainers overhaul the CAR military in Bangui.
SANDU, the military's union, said Zuma should never have gone to Bozize's aid by beefing up the deployment in January, especially after he was accused of ignoring a peace deal signed with the rebels.
"The Bozize regime is notorious for its corruption, nepotism and maladministration," SANDU said in a statement.
"His dishonouring of that agreement should have been the green light for the withdrawal of our troops from that country. South Africa had no further business being in a country governed by a crooked dictator."
For Zuma, the timing could not have been worse as he dusted off the red carpet for a summit of leaders of the BRICS group of major emerging economies, including a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping on his first overseas trip as head of state.
"This is tremendously damaging for South Africa and the reputation of what was perceived as one of the major military powers in Africa," said Alex Vines, an analyst at the Chatham House think-tank in London.
"You are dealing with a South Africa at the moment that doesn't have a clear strategic vision of what it's doing other than being a member of BRICS, which is a lazy way of papering over a lack of strategic thinking at all sorts of other levels."
The episode has underscored Pretoria's lack of diplomatic savvy and the risks inherent in acting unilaterally, as well as rubbing in the humiliation of the army's one other post-apartheid intervention when it ended up with a bloody nose in 1998 at the hands of the armed forces of tiny Lesotho.
"They did not at all understand they were backing the wrong horse. They did not consult with the region," said Thierry Vircoulon, a central Africa researcher at the International Crisis Group.
"The policy of doing it alone ended up in the disaster this weekend."
South Africa's three other African deployments are with a United Nations force in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), with the U.N. in Sudan's Darfur and an anti-piracy operation off the Mozambique coast.
Zuma has also held talks with Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos about the possibility of staffing a regional peace-keeping force in eastern DRC to back a peace deal signed last month.
The CAR debacle - and scepticism about the reasons for sending troops to a country so far away - has ensured any deeper involvement in the DRC will come only with cast-iron objectives rather than fuzzy notions of promoting regional stability.
"If you asked me to guess the real reason, the deployment in the CAR was really a result of some misplaced policy to export South Africa's 'government of national unity' model," said David Maynier, defence spokesman for the opposition DA.
"It has completely failed." (Editing by Michael Roddy)