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Russian Helicopter Pilot Beaten, Missing in Darfur, UN Says

A Russian pilot with the United Nations and African Union joint peacekeeping mission in the Darfur region of Sudan was assaulted after his helicopter was hijacked on July 26, the UN said today.

A militia group supported by Sudan’s government seized the helicopter, the Russian news agency Itar-Tass reported citing Mikhail Mergelov, chairman of the Russian Federation Council’s committee for international affairs. The pilot is “in the hands of regular armed formations that theoretically must obey Khartoum,” Margelov said, according to Itar-Tass.

The helicopter was transporting three commanders of the Liberty and Justice Movement, a Darfur rebel group, when it landed in an undesignated area due to bad weather outside Nyala, the capital of South Darfur, Chris Cycmanick, a spokesman for the UN in Sudan said. The rebel commanders were on their way to Doha, the Qatari capital, to participate in peace talks with the Sudanese government, he said.

The rebel commanders and the pilot were “beaten at the scene,” UN spokesman Martin Nesirky told reporters in New York. “Subsequently, the crew and passengers, with the exception of the pilot, were taken to a government military camp overnight.” The crew and the rebel commanders returned to Nyala yesterday, he said. The helicopter is still missing.

“The United Nations remains deeply concerned about his welfare,” Nesirky said, referring to the Russian pilot. He said the UN is “working with the government of Sudan to locate him.”

Sudan’s ambassador to the UN didn’t return a phone call asking for information about the incident.

Conflict Since 2003

The helicopter, operated by Utair, Russia’s fifth-largest airline, provides services for the joint UN-AU peacekeeping mission in Darfur, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on its website.

Darfur has been the scene of conflict between the government and rebel groups since 2003. As many as 300,000 people have died, mainly due to illness and starvation, according to UN estimates. Sudanese President Umar al-Bashir’s government puts the death toll at about 10,000.

Margelov said the Janjaweed may be acting independently of the government because the militia’s funding has been cut off, Itar-Tass reported. He said the Janjaweed is “putting sand in the wheels, standing in the way of Khartoum, which is very much interested in negotiations with different armed groups and in achieving political settlement in Darfur,” according to Itar-Tass.

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