South Sudan Buys Russian Helicopters Ahead of a Planned Vote on Secession
Southern Sudan, which is scheduled to hold a referendum in January on whether to secede from Sudan, is acquiring 10 Russian helicopters that give the semi- autonomous region its first aerial capability.
The Sudanese government has been informed about the purchases and told that the aircraft are for civilian purposes, said al-Sawarmi Khaled, spokesman for Sudan’s army.
The region’s ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement “has confirmed that they’re for transport use,” Khaled said by phone from Khartoum on Aug. 30.
Rebels in Southern Sudan and the Sudanese government signed a Comprehensive Peace Agreement, or CPA, in 2005 that ended a conflict in which 2 million people died. The political wing of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, known as the SPLA, gained semi-autonomous control over Southern Sudan, which was promised a plebiscite on whether to form an independent nation.
SPLA spokesman Lieutenant-General Kuol Deim Kuol said in June that Southern Sudan planned to have an air force before the referendum. He denied these plans would violate the cease-fire agreement, pointing to capacity-building and technical training services the U.S. and U.K. governments are providing the SPLA.
“We are not prohibited,” said Kuol. “The international community is supposed to help us in modernizing the SPLA.”
Under the accord, both sides were required to stop the “replenishment of ammunition, weapons and other lethal or military equipment.” The cease-fire zone specified in the deal covers all of Southern Sudan and some of the north. The accord allows for the “re-supply” of “lethal items” if approved by a Joint Defense Board, or JDB, in coordination with the United Nations Mission in Sudan.
“Research conducted by the Small Arms Survey has shown that in practice the JDB does not appear to play any role in scrutinizing their acquisitions,” said Claire McEvoy, project manager on Sudan at the Geneva-based research group. Both sides have actively re-armed, in contravention of their cease-fire commitments, according to a 2009 report by the survey.
The helicopters ordered by the government of Southern Sudan are MI-17s manufactured by Kazan Helicopters of Russia, a copy of the agreement between Kazan and the government of Southern Sudan obtained by Bloomberg shows.
The aircraft are an upgraded version of a model first used in Russia’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan.
“An MI-17 is a military transport helicopter, so it could be used for civilian purposes,” E.J. Hogendoorn, Horn of Africa project director at International Crisis Group, said in an interview on Sept. 2. “You could mount guns on it, and then it becomes an offensive platform.”
The import of the aircraft may represent a “technical violation” of the CPA and comes after the government in Khartoum imported MI-24 attack helicopters in recent years, Hogendoorn said. “Both sides have been importing lots and lots of weapons.”
The purchase of the helicopters comes after IHS Jane’s, the Englewood, Colorado-based research group, last year reported Southern Sudan acquired 100 Russian-built T-72 tanks and other artillery.
“Taken together with the purchase of those tanks, the acquisition of these helicopters looks to me like Southern Sudan is putting together a big enough force to discourage Khartoum from trying to preempt or nullify the referendum,” said Helmoed Romer-Heitman, a Cape Town-based defense analyst. “Southern Sudan expects the January vote to go for secession and for Khartoum not to take it lying down.”
Sudan is sub-Saharan Africa’s third-biggest producer of oil and most of its daily production of 490,000 barrels is pumped in Southern Sudan. The crude is exported through a pipeline that runs north through Sudan to Port Sudan on the Red Sea. No agreement has been reached between the two sides on a revenue- sharing arrangement or pipeline-usage fees following the referendum. Most of Sudan’s oil is shipped to China.
When contacted on Aug. 29, Kuol wouldn’t comment on the MI- 17 purchases and hung up. He didn’t answer several subsequent calls to his mobile phone. Calls to Kazan’s head office didn’t connect when Bloomberg called and the company didn’t immediately respond to an e-mailed request for comment.
“There is nothing to prove that the aircraft are for military purposes,” Khaled of the Sudanese army said. “The south’s government has announced that it has no intention of acquiring military aircraft.”
The first batch of the helicopters was scheduled to arrive in Uganda, which neighbors Southern Sudan, in May 2010, according to a March 2009 supplement to a contract dated May 2007. A copy of the agreement between Kazan and the government of Southern Sudan, represented by SPLA Chief of Staff James Hoth Mai, was obtained by Bloomberg.
The first four helicopters were later scheduled to be flown from Kazan airport to Entebbe in Uganda on Aug. 12 aboard an Antonov AN-124 aircraft, according to correspondence between the parties.
Southern Sudan government spokesman Barnaba Marial Benjamin said no helicopters had been delivered to the region.