UN Peacekeepers in Darfur Finally Get Some Helicopters

UN peacekeepers in Darfur received their first five military helicopters on Tuesday after a 2-year wait. Neighboring Ethiopia supplied the tactical aircraft.

Military commanders and activists have been clamouring for Western powers to supply choppers to the African Union-United Nations Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) since it arrived in Western Sudan in January of 2008. The peacekeepers are responsible for securing a territory the size of Spain and helicopters will provide much-needed mobility. Globally, donated helicopters are in short supply, according to UN officials, because so many have been pushed into service in other conflicts. Peacekeepers say they still need at least 13 more helicopters to carry out their mission.

The peacekeepers plan to use the choppers to reinforce and/or evacuate troops during fighting in Darfur. UNAMID’s mandate would allow the peacekeepers to return fire if their helicopters were fired upon, but UNAMID’s force commander Patrick Nyamvumba declined to tell Reuters whether he planned to use the helicopters in an offensive capacity.   

The copters could not have arrived at a better time. Deadly violence has errupted over the past few days in in Jebel Marra in South Darfur and Jebel Moon in West Darfur. Residents of Jebel Marra, a mountainous rebel stronghold, have been driven from their homes by fighting between government troops and rebels. Rebels say the government tried to mount an unsuccessful offensive against them, but the government insists it had nothing to do with the fighting. Maybe the new helicopters will give UNAMID troops a more authoritative perspective who’s fighting whom. 

UNAMID issued a statement Tuesday calling on all sides to exercise maximum restraint.  Ibrahim Gambari, the newly-appointed Joint Special Representative of UNAMID warned that the violence could undermine the ongoing peace process. Gambari recently travelled to Doha to for talks with Sudanese government officials and rebel leaders.