KHARTOUM, Nov 21 – Peacekeepers in Sudan’s Darfur, where surging violence killed five Blue Helmets last month, sent back their fleet of helicopter gunships to Ethiopia several weeks ago, UN sources said on Wednesday.
The African Union-United Nations Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) announced in February 2010 that it had received five Mi-35 tactical helicopters from Ethiopia.
They would be largely used for troop deployment and “monitoring the security situation”, a mission statement said at the time.
“We don’t have those anymore,” one UN source told AFP, requesting anonymity. “They were returned back to the (Ethiopian) government I think over the summer.”
The Mi-35 is a gunship capable of firing rockets and heavy machinegun rounds.
“Sometimes they were not given clearance by the government to fly,” the UN source said.
The UN Security Council on July 31 expressed “deep concern at increased restrictions and bureaucratic impediments placed by the government of Sudan upon UNAMID movement and operations, particularly to areas of recent conflict”.
Darfur’s top official, Eltigani Seisi, has agreed “there are some issues with access” but said the government was trying to address them.
UNAMID has a separate fleet of helicopters for logistical and medical missions.
The Mi-35 gunships had already gone back to Ethiopia when a UNAMID convoy on its way to the flashpoint region of Hashaba, in North Darfur state, was ambushed by unidentified attackers on October 17. One peacekeeper was killed and three were wounded.
The assailants used anti-tank guns and other high-calibre weapons in what may have been an attempt to prevent peacekeepers from reaching Hashaba, UNAMID said.
UNAMID was trying to conduct an assessment after the United States said more than 70 civilians died in September from fighting and aerial bombardments between rebels and Sudanese government forces.
Without mentioning the ambush on the peacekeepers, Sudan’s army on Tuesday denied any connection with unrest in the Hashaba region and offered the military’s “full cooperation” with UNAMID.
On October 2, four Nigerian members of the mission died in an ambush near El-Geneina in West Darfur.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the UN said its its helicopters fired cannons and rockets on Sunday as a peacekeeping mission there backed the army to protect civilians against an advance by M23 rebels, who nonetheless on Tuesday seized a key city.
Though violence is down from its peak, various overlapping conflicts persist in Sudan’s far-west Darfur region nine years after ethnic rebels rose against the Arab-dominated Khartoum government.