UN denies Darfur rebels seized Russian helicopter

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The UN-African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur denied on Tuesday official claims in Moscow that rebels there had seized a Russian helicopter.

Instead, the pilot was said to have landed at a spot different from what was planned because of bad weather and apparently surprised security forces, who detained the aircraft until its status could be clarified.

In the meantime, it appeared as if the Russian pilot had disappeared.

The Russian foreign ministry said earlier Tuesday that unnamed rebels in Darfur had seized a Russian helicopter working under contract for the United Nations and carrying nine people.

"Yesterday (Monday) rebels captured a helicopter of the Russian air company UTair with four Russian crew members and five passengers, Sudanese citizens, a ministry statement said.

"According to our information, there are no casualties and the aircraft was not damaged," the ministry said.

But Kemal Saiki, spokesman of the United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), said "recent reports of a helicopter captured by rebels or by any other armed movement are erroneous."

"The helicopter was supposed to land at one place but, due to bad weather, the area was impractical and the pilot risked getting stuck in the mud. So he decided to land in another area."

For his part, Russian embassy official Yuri Vidakas said in Khartoum that, "according to preliminary indications, there might have been a pilot error, and the helicopter landed in the wrong place."

Vidakas said that the situation was under control and that, for now, the incident was not being treated as a "hostage taking."

Saiki said "the security forces were not informed that a helicopter was to land in that other area" and that, after consultations with their superiors, everyone settled in for the night.

"Everyone slept on location and was well treated," he added.

In New York, UNAMID said contact had been established with three of the four crew members.

Ibrahim Gambari, UNAMID joint special representative, told the UN Security Council that the pilot remained unaccounted for.

"Earlier today we have been able to establish contact with three of the four crew members of the helicopter, as well as one international staff who reported to be in safety" at a Sudanese government location south of Menawashi," Gambari said.

He said UNAMID was working with the government and rebel groups to try to locate the missing pilot.

Spokesmen for the two main Darfur rebel groups -- the Justice and Equality Movement and the Sudan Liberation Army -- said they knew nothing of any helicopter being seized.

The helicopter went missing while transporting members of the Security Arrangements Committee of the Liberation and Justice Movement (LJM) to locations in south Darfur, he said.

The LJM is an alliance of 10 Darfur rebel groups formed last February.

The strife-torn western Sudanese region has seen a wave of kidnappings of foreign nationals since March 2009, with 17 foreigners including 10 Westerners seized there.

Two German aid workers kidnapped on June 22 when gunmen swooped on their offices in south Darfur were freed on Tuesday, Germany's foreign ministry said.

Darfur has been gripped by civil war since 2003 that has left 300,000 people dead and 2.7 million displaced, according to the United Nations. Khartoum says 10,000 have been killed in the conflict.

© 2010 AFP

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