The Shooting Down of a UN Cargo Helicopter: Where the evidence points | 28 August 2014

The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) is now presumably in possession of all information relevant to the August 26 shoot-down of a UN transport helicopter (a Russian Mi-8) and the killing of three crew members just outside Bentiu (Unity State).  A fourth crew member seems likely to survive his injuries.  Even before assigning any responsibility for this egregious violation of international humanitarian and human rights law, the UN head of humanitarian operations has made clear the grim implications of the shoot-down:

“UN cargo helicopters are vital to supplying peacekeeping bases and providing food for civilians.” [UN head of humanitarian operations Toby] Lanzer said that all flights to the northern oil town of Bentiu, had been suspended following the crash, as investigators examined the craft’s black box flight recorder. “If this type of threat continues, our services will grind to a halt in Bentiu,” Wendy Taeuber, who heads International Rescue Committee in the country, told AFP. “Helicopter is the only way in and out for both staff and supplies.” (Agence France-Presse [Juba], 28 August 2014)

Humanitarian context

The threat of famine in South Sudan grows daily, and Lanzer expects that it will hit fully in late 2014 or 2015.  This is only a statistical threshold, though a terrifying one:

[The] definition is highly technical. For example, 30 percent of children have to be acutely malnourished; 1 in 5 households has to have an “extreme lack of food.” Famine is the fifth and last stage of food insecurity on something known as the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification system, or IPC. (National Public Radio [United States], 27 August 27 2014).

Many places in South Sudan have not been surveyed—an ominous sign in itself—but even so, much of the country has been reported as in “Phase 4” of the food insecurity scale.  This is the stage immediately prior to famine and is designated an “emergency”; the criteria for such designation are 20 percent of households “unable to meet basic survival needs even with extreme coping,” such as selling all of their livestock and assets.  Parts of Jonglei, Upper Nile, Lakes, and Unity States—generally the northeastern part of South Sudan, where fighting has been heaviest—have already reached Phase 4.  Altogether the UN estimates that that four million people face severe food insecurity.  Perhaps one million children will require treatment this year for acute malnutrition; tens of thousands will die.

This is the humanitarian context in which the significance of a military downing of a UN transport helicopter must be understood.  As Lanzer said in an on-line OCHA press conference today:

“The helicopter crash in Bentiu had a direct impact on UNMISS and humanitarian work; all flights to Bentiu have been suspended.” (28 August 2014 |

With famine looming and food in desperately short supply, the downing of a transport helicopter at the height of the rainy season is an extraordinarily destructive action.

Military context

• Both the Russians and the UN, in Sudan and New York, have determined that the helicopter was shot down; it was not an accidental crash.  There was certainly no ambiguity in the assessment of Vitaly Churkin, Russian ambassador to the UN:  “All data says the helicopter was shot down.”

•  The New York Times is the first source I have seen to report the following:

United Nations officials said they were investigating [the shoot-down] and had no immediate comment on a rebel commander’s assertions that his fighters had shot down the helicopter with a rocket-propelled grenade. (New York Times, 26 August 2014)

This does not square with comments made in Addis Ababa by rebel spokesman Mabior Garang:

[R]ebels insisted the attack took place over an area controlled by the army. “We were not to blame,” [Mabior] Garang told AFP by telephone from Ethiopia. (Agence France-Presse [Juba], 27 August 2014)

But as noted below, UN chief humanitarian coordinator Toby Lanzer has described the territory in which the helicopter came to ground as “contested,” not under the control of one side or the other—another contradiction of rebel spokesman Garang’s assertion (UN UniFeed, 28 August 2014).

•  A highly reliable UN source has provided context to Gadet’s forces impounding of a UN helicopter on August 23 that was carrying an IGAD investigative team; the team was force-marched for four hours, at gunpoint, from Buoth (Mayom county) to Wicok; one member died from the strain of the exertion.  None of the survivors could physically manage a return walk.  By way of explanation, rebel forces “accused the regional bloc, IGAD, of aiding ‘government spies’ in their controlled territories in violation of the regulations and procedures govern[ing] the monitoring and verification activities between the warring parties” (Sudan Tribune, 25 August 2014).

In a slightly different geographical account, Sudan Tribune indicates that the UN helicopter and IGAD monitoring team had landed in “rebel-held territory of Wachop, Wankai Payam, west of Unity State’s capital, Bentiu.”  This is quite close to the area where the UN cargo helicopter from Wau was shot down on August 26, and one (according to Lanzer) that has recently been militarily contested.  This contradicts the “rebel” claim that the helicopter was downed over government-controlled territory. (Wau—in Western Bahr el-Ghazal—lies some 250 kilometers to the southwest of Bentiu.)

•  Gadet has already been sanctioned by both the European Union and the United States for atrocity crimes during the present conflict;

•  A fearsome and longtime military commander, Gadet was responsible for a great many atrocities on both sides of the conflict during Sudan’s long civil war (he changed sides repeatedly and expediently).  After Gadet had re-defected to the SPLA in what was then Western Upper Nile (essentially present-day Unity State), he was one of the particular concerns of Human Rights Watch in a 1 March 2001 letter to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, expressing growing alarm at “recent military developments [in the oil regions] that threaten to spiral out of control [and] result in enormous cost to civilian lives.”  Human Rights Watch noted in particular that “Cmdr. Peter Gatdet [is] responsible for destroying villages and conducting summary executions of civilians in the recent fighting in Western Upper Nile.”  This is the same Peter Gadet we see today.

•  There is, finally, startling evidence that comes from two highly informed officials, one Western and one South Sudanese.  The evidence takes the form of communication intercepts, still not made public, which clearly link Gadet to the shooting down of the UN helicopter (I have had key elements summarized for me but do not possess the intercept transcripts). The intercepts were made Sunday or Monday (August 24 or 25) and, again, clearly link Gadet to the Tuesday (August 26) shooting down of a UN cargo helicopter.  All this occurs as an impending SPLA/iO assault on Bentiu seems ever more likely, and consequent fears by Gadet of Government of Sudan reinforcements arriving via helicopter.

This intercept evidence of Gadet’s responsibility, including a transcript, will become a good deal more widely available in the coming couple of days, and will be posted as it does.

In short, the circumstantial and forensic evidence is overwhelming and points clearly to Gadet and his forces as responsible for the shoot-down.

Military capabilities

Like far too many military forces in South Sudan, Gadet’s troops are extremely well armed; a relatively slow moving helicopter could be brought down by any number of weapons in his arsenal, including what has been most widely speculated, rocket-propelled grenades.  But recoilless rifles and other arms could also bring down even the heavy Mi-8.  The Small Arms Survey (May 2014) has also detailed the Khartoum regime’s movement of weapons into South Sudan over a period of years as a means of weakening the Government of South Sudan (GOSS); there are many highly credible reports of Khartoum’s providing weapons to rebel forces in Upper Nile and Unity State.  Small Arms Study made offered a compelling account (July 2014) of Khartoum’s culpability in stoking the fires of civil war in the South


All evidence indicates that the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/in Opposition (SPLA/iO) is determined to retake Bentiu, scene of some of the worst ethnic atrocities of the conflict to date.  Hundreds of civilians were slaughtered by rebel forces with the SPLA/iO’s seizure of the town in April.  The savagery and brutality of the assault shocked even experienced and hardened relief workers.  Bentiu is in largely Nuer territory, and ethnic animosities remain extremely high between the predominantly Nuer SPLA/iO and army of the Government of South Sudan (SPLA/Juba), which is less exclusively, but still preponderantly Dinka.

As the fighting continues, the ethnic identities of the forces grow more exclusive, with many reports of Nuer desertions from the ranks of the SPLA/Juba.  Various intelligence reports suggest that while GOSS forces control Bentiu itself, the forces of Peter Gadet—nominally part of the SPLA/iO—largely surround the town.  At the height of the rainy season, the resupply of Bentiu—for military or humanitarian purposes—can take place only by air, and helicopter transport, with no requirement of a cleared runway, is far and away the best.

But the UN cargo helicopter was clearly marked as such; it was on a regular flight from Wau to Bentiu and would have been used previously in re-supply efforts (see photograph at end of this brief).  There is absolutely no evidence that the UN has provided military equipment or re-supply to the army of the Government of South Sudan—or to rebel groups.  Refusing to distinguish between military humanitarian aircraft, clearly marked as belonging to the UN, is a terrible war crime in any event.  Given the needs of civilians in South Sudan, Gadet’s shoot-down of the UN cargo helicopter will affect tens of thousands of lives over the coming weeks and months.

All this comes against the backdrop of growing negotiating obduracy on the part of the rebel movement, and the refusal by Riek Machar and those he represents to sign the cease-fire agreement announced by the East African IGAD consortium on August 25 (Voice of America, 28 August 2014).  The ostensible reason is that there is no acceptable interim government or power-sharing agreement in which Salva Kiir remains as president.  It would seem that the rebel forces that Riek controls—and there many he does not, even as he is not representative of most political opposition in South Sudan—are simply unwilling to reach an agreement, even if the cost is continued war that poses the gravest possible threat to all the people of South Sudan.

It is on the basis of this decision—and the decision to refuse Salva Kiir’s offer of an “immediate cease-fire” on 27 December 2013—that Riek will be judged by history.

[ I detail more of the diplomatic implications of the shoot-down in my August 26 brief | ]

A UN Mi-8 helicopter very similar to this was involved in the alleged shooting which claimed the liv

A Russian Mi-8 cargo helicopter