, JUBA, August 27 – Warring forces in South Sudan traded blame Wednesday for the crash of a UN helicopter in which three crew died, although investigations have yet to confirm if it was shot down.
The helicopter crashed Tuesday some 10 kilometres (six miles) from the northern oil town of Bentiu, one of the worst-hit areas in the civil war that has roiled the young country for more than eight months.
A UN team was investigating the wreckage of the Mi-8 helicopter on Wednesday, but have made no comment on the cause of the crash, in which three were killed and one wounded.
The crew members were reportedly all Russian, according to the UN.
Army spokesman Philip Aguer said rebels “shot it down”, but provided no further evidence.
Rebel spokesman Mabior Garang, son of South Sudan’s first president John Garang who died in a helicopter crash in 2005, dismissed the claims as “malicious allegations”.
He said rebel troops nearby had “heard a loud explosion, and upon investigation found that an aircraft had crashed”, but claimed it landed in an area controlled by the army.
“The area in which the plane was reportedly shot down is government-held territory, if indeed the aircraft was shot down,” Garang said.
Thousands of people have been killed and more than 1.8 million have fled a civil war sparked by a power struggle between President Salva Kiir and his sacked deputy Riek Machar.
Rebel forces in Unity are led by warlord Peter Gadet, who has been slapped with sanctions for atrocities by both the United States and the European Union.
“The plane was shot by forces of Riek Machar under Peter Gadet,” Aguer said, adding the army had also sent a team to investigate.
The town of Bentiu has been badly damaged in heavy fighting between government and rebel forces.
Earlier this month government troops there opened fire on a UN peacekeeping base sheltering 40,000 civilians, wounding a child and spraying bullets across the camp, during celebrations to mark a holiday.
Rebel forces last week seized a UN helicopter carrying a ceasefire monitors.
UN cargo helicopters are vital to supplying peacekeeping bases and providing food for civilians, with aid agencies warning of the risk of famine should fighting continue.