Russia urges S Sudan to 'punish guilty' in copter downing

22nd December 2012, Comments 0 comments

Russia urged South Sudan on Saturday to punish those responsible for the downing of a UN peacekeeping helicopter that killed all four Russian crew members aboard, in an attack condemned by the international community.

"We call on the government of South Sudan to carry out the necessary investigation, punish the guilty and take every measure to guarantee that this never happens again," the foreign ministry said in a statement on its website after Friday's incident.

"The tragic event in this African country raises with new urgency the question of the security of UN peacekeeping missions," the Russian ministry said, attributing the helicopter downing to "blunders".

It cited South Sudan officials as saying the helicopter was downed "despite the fact that the UN mission informed the local command about the planned flight as usual."

"The mission was guaranteed complete safety," the ministry said.

The United Nations said the aircraft was hit while on a "reconnaissance flight" over the Likuangole district of eastern Jonglei state.

A South Sudan military spokesman, Philip Aguer, said the helicopter was hit by "friendly fire". He said the United Nations had not told the South Sudan army (SPLA) that the craft was in the region.

A UN peacekeeping spokesman, Kieran Dwyer, responded: "The mission shares all flight plans in advance with the government and the SPLA."

Russia's presidential envoy to Africa Mikhail Margelov called for a swift investigation in comments to the Interfax news agency.

"We would like to receive the results of the investigation from Juba as soon as possible," he said.

"The Russian side is counting on the circumstances of the incident being investigated properly and the guilty being punished."

He also called for the sides in the South Sudan conflict to "lower the level of jumpiness that has had the most negative effect on the work of the UN mission."

Russian television named the men who died as commander Sergei Ilyin, second pilot Alfir Abrarov, flight engineer Sergei Yegorov and cabin attendant and radio operator Nikolai Shpanov.

UN leader Ban Ki-moon, as well as the UN Security Council and the United States, vehemently condemned the attack.

Ban said Friday that it was a "clearly marked" UN aircraft and demanded that those responsible be brought to account.

The European Union's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton also said in a statement Saturday that she "deplores" the attack and "calls on the government of South Sudan to give full cooperation in the investigation of this very serious incident".

Jongeli state has been stricken by ethnic strife since South Sudan became independent from Khartoum in July last year, becoming a base for rebellion against the new government.

It was a frontline state in four decades of near continuous civil war between South Sudan and the Khartoum government up to 2005 that left at least two million people dead.

Likuangole itself has also been at the centre of battles between rival tribes that have left thousands of people dead over the past year.

Pilots from the ex-Soviet Union are in demand in Africa because they know how to fly Soviet aircraft, while the low salaries for pilots in Russian regional airlines give them an incentive to work abroad even in difficult conditions.

The Mi-8 helicopter is a workhorse model that was developed in the 1960s and is still being made in a modified version today. It can carry up to 28 passengers or be used to transport cargo.

The downed aircraft belonged to the Nizhnevartovsk-Avia air company based in the western Siberian town of Nizhnevartovsk.

The company was working on a contract with the United Nations, acting director Sergei Bakunin said in televised comments.

"They are fine pilots. The commander had more flight experience than the others, around 7,000 hours. He went through Afghanistan, so he had great experience," he said.

The company has 14 Mi-8 helicopters, two of which were deployed in Sudan, while others served UN missions in Congo and Afghanistan, according to a 2011 annual report.


© 2012 AFP

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