Updated, 9 September 2014: On 9 September 2014 UNMISS press release clarifies and confirms several important details about the downing of a Russian Mi-8 helicopter near Bentiu on 26 August 2014—two weeks ago:
“Experts who concluded the first stage of the investigation yesterday have uncovered evidence indicating that the aircraft was shot down.”
“UNMISS has confirmed that, during a phone call with a Mission’s staff member in Bentiu on 17 August, Peter Gadet, the commander of opposition forces in Unity State, alleged that UNMISS aircraft were being used to transport Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) troops and threatened to shoot down the Mission’s aircraft.” ]
Eric Reeves, 8 September 2014
It has been two weeks since a helicopter of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) was shot down near Bentiu on a routine flight from Wau. Although promising a swift and thorough investigation, the UN seems to be stalling, hoping that this explosive event will somehow fade away. But the reality is that there is very clear evidence that the forces responsible for shooting down the helicopter belong to rebel commander Peter Gadet. The UN evidently is too fearful of a finding that Gadet is responsible, which would have unpredictable consequences for flights into and out of Bentiu and other regions of Unity State, where he functions as an independent warlord, only nominally part of the “SPLA/in Opposition,” and certainly not under the control of purported rebel leader Riek Machar.
Peter Gadet of the SPLA/In Opposition; he controls large parts of the territory surrounding the major town of Bentiu.
I have previously detailed the circumstances of the shoot-down, and Gadet’s history as a man of extreme and brutal violence: http://wp.me/p45rOG-1p3. I noted inter alia that Gadet is one of two men who have been sanctioned by the U.S. and the European Union—Gadet for his responsibility for civilian massacres in the Bentiu area. Insofar as this registers with Gadet, he knows that he has no role in the political future of South Sudan. He has, in other words, nothing to lose by further atrocity crimes or any actions that he believes strengthens his military posture in Unity State.
I recalled that 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.”
I noted that highly reliable UN sources have provided context for Gadet’s forces impounding of a UN helicopter on August 23, which 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).
I also noted the extraordinary humanitarian context in which the shoot-down of a UN cargo plane occurred:
“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)
Audio intercept of Gadet speaking with UNMISS official in charge of air flights into Bentiu Update, 8 September 2014: first three minutes of this exchange available on request—
And finally, I referred to evidence taking the form of communication intercepts, still not made public, which clearly link Gadet to the shooting down of the UN helicopter. At the time I had key summary elements of the intercepts but did not possess the intercepts themselves. The intercepts were made Sunday or Monday (August 24 or 25), and I have now had an opportunity to listen to them, transcribe as much as is clearly audible—[see above]. But UNMISS certainly possesses the intercept, as well as the first-hand account of the person I refer to as “UNMISS interlocutor.” If they question the authenticity of what I have transcribed, let them say so publicly.
August 24 or 25, 2014—this is one or two days before the UNMISS helicopter is shot down over a militarily contested area. A rebel spokesman, Mabior Garang, quickly and erroneously declared in Addis Ababa that the shoot-down of the helicopter occurred over territory controlled by Government of South Sudan forces. But Toby Lanzer, who has shown remarkable courage and honesty in his most difficult of positions, quickly corrected this, declaring that the shoot-down occurred over a contested area.
Here are the key elements of the 13-minute audio intercept; much is inaudible, with voices speaking over one another or radio/phone crackling; much is entirely redundant. Gadet’s tone of voice after some early efforts at pleasantries is angry, verging at times on the maniacal; the UNMISS interlocutor is reasonably reasonable throughout, informed (as Gadet is often not) about specific aircraft, how UN helicopters are marked, and the fact that the forces of the GOSS (SPLA/Juba) move not by helicopter but by fixed-wing aircraft. This is an issue that Gadet never seems to understand, and does much to explain the extraordinary decision to go ahead with the shoot-down of a clearly marked, white UN Mi-8 transport helicopter (the UN logo is large and appears in many places on all aircraft).
Gadet had received intelligence from Juba that he believed indicated some 2,000 SPLA troops were on the move to Bentiu, and evidently assumed that UNMISS would be ferrying or supplying them. Gadet also seems uncomprehending of the fact that UNMISS itself needs supplies, including military supplies, and that these are ferried by, among other aircraft, helicopters—again, clearly marked by their white color and very large UN logo. Gadet also fails to understand that the SPLA/Juba neither informs, nor is obliged to inform, UNMISS of their military movements. This latter issue is complicated of course by the notional cease-fire in effect, but since it is merely notional, neither the SPLA/Juba nor the SPLA/iO informs UNMISS of military movements. UNMISS does have a number of eyes and ears on the ground, but their use of this information is primarily for civilian protection—and protection of UN personnel. They are also very limited in their surveillance capacity.
A Russian-build Mi-8 UN cargo helicopter of the sort short down near Bentiu, 26 August 2014
Gadet’s inability to sustain a coherent discussion of particular issues makes the conversation (13 minutes; transcribed as fully as possible for first three minutes; thereafter highlights from a highly repetitive exchange) difficult to understand in places; he continually interrupts his UNMISS interlocutor, who shows consistent patience and restraint. Herewith my best effort at transcribing what seems most revealing; any characterization or explanation on my part is in italics:
UNMISS Interlocutor: Offers respectful greetings; indicates he expected call from Gadet; he speaks with a kind and accommodating tone of voice;
UNMISS Interlocutor (UI): “Yes, general how are you sir? Yes sir, we are here and I’m happy to hear from you.”
Gadet (G): “I’m fine here.”
UI: “Very good sir, very good sir. Your friends they came and told me you would me calling today. Yes sir, please go ahead.”
G: “Yes something I can to tell you. Yes something I need to tell you. We don’t know the difference of SPLA and you. This is why we tell you that tomorrow we fight, we fire at all aircraft incoming.”
UI: “No, no sir please don’t do that, because UNMISS…all our planes…” [Gadet interrupts]
G: “No, no, no why you use, why you use, why you use your airplanes for SPLA—today two cargos with SPLA and you sat down together…this is how you bring the SPLA.”
UI: “No, no, no, no—our planes they make rotations: Mongolian, Ghanian troops they go, new troops coming in, we bring also food. We have about 6, 7, 8 flights today. Tomorrow also 6, 7, 8 flights.”
G: “No, no, today there are two cargos for SPLA, bringing bullets and guns.”
UI: “No, no…the SPLA have their own fixed-wing aircraft. The SPLA don’t have helicopters.”
G: “No, no—tomorrow, my friend, now we offer you today. Tomorrow we start fighting [in the afternoon (?)], we will fire at them all tomorrow. For you or the SPLA.”
[Heavy cross-speaking makes for several unintelligible sentences]
G: “Heavy cargo coming—now you know.” [You have been warned, you have been warned (?)]
G: “Two Antonovs have come.”
UI: “We don’t have Antonovs.”
G: “And today you bring two cargoes.”
UI: “Yes, today we have cargo which is bringing luggage for the military, for our troops, Mongolia, Mongolian troops…”
G: “No, no, no for SPLA, my friend.”
UI: “No, no, no….”
[Excerpts from second ten-minute section of audio]
G: “No, no, for the SPLA, my friend.”
UI: “We don’t bring anything for SPLA.”
UI: “No, no, we don’t bring anything for SPLA.”
G: “You bring bullets and guns.”
UI: “The SPLA bring their own with fixed wing, not helicopter.” [They used fixed wing—we use helicopters (?)]
G: “Why don’t, why you don’t why don’t you tell me one time when SPLA is coming?”
UI: “We don’t know they come. They never tell us.”
UI: “I tell your friend here…I will give him everything I can give, the schedule, what time my flights come in, what time leaving what time arriving…I can give you.”
G: “We fire at them tomorrow—[unintelligible] tomorrow we fire at them.”
UI “Don’t make a mistake my friend [in pleading voice]. We tell everyone everyday what flight is coming, we have a schedule.”
G: “No, no that doesn’t work anymore—that doesn’t work anymore.”
UI: “We tell everyday what flight we have, so you don’t attack my planes.”
[Gadet has become extremely angry and agitated at this point, breathing very hard and increasingly difficult to understand.]
[UI responds emphatically to Gadet’s continuing reference to SPLA helicopter cargo flights.]
UI: “Not helicopter, fixed-wing plane; the SPLA don’t come by helicopter, they come in fixed-wing planes.”
[Continued difficulties in understanding audio; Gadet’s panting is heavier and more distorting of his speech. He seems incapable of accepting the accounts of specific aircraft offered by UI, particularly concerning fixed-wing and rotary aircraft. There follows a confusing discussion of the meaning of white aircraft with and without UN logo.]
At the peak of his anger, having asked why UNMISS has “come together with SPLA,” Gadet screams: “You let them, we burn them all.”
UI: [Calmly] “Okay, so what do you want me to do? Stop all my flights?”
[UI Manages to end discussion by promising to call Gadet everyday to give complete UN flight schedule for the following day. Gadet seems increasingly confused by the cogency of the explanations offered by the UNMISS official.]
It is unclear whether Gadet has been in any way satisfied on the chief issue animating the conversation: “We don’t know the difference of SPLA and you [UNMISS].”
“We don’t know the difference of SPLA and you [UNMISS].” The events of August 26 make clear that Commander Gadet doesn’t really care.
And if that is so, why haven’t we heard more from Riek Machar, nominal commander of the SPLA/iO? Is Peter Gadet part of his “army”? And if he is, does Machar accept command responsibility for the downing of a UN helicopter, clearly marked as such? It is doubtful we will hear anything from Riek on this score. Gadet is militarily too valuable for Machar to disown him; about Gadet’s atrocity crimes, including the shooting down of a UN cargo helicopter, he has been and will remain silent.