Kampala — South Sudanese rebels have denied allegations its forces shot down a UN helicopter near the capital of oil-rich Unity state on Tuesday.
In an interview Voice of America on Tuesday, the spokesperson for the South Sudanese army (SPLA), Col. Philip Aguer, accused rebels under commander of Maj.Gen Peter Gatdet of bringing down the Mi-8 helicopter at Tong, about 10km south of Bentiu, killing three Russian crew members on board.
However, rebel brigadier-general Lul Ruai Koang dismissed the claims as government propaganda, denying the opposition faction had any involvement.
The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) has confirmed the helicopter crashed and has launched an investigation into what caused the incident.
Koang said the SPLA's rush to lay blame on rebel forces on the ground in Unity state was premature, describing the allegations as "unfounded and baseless", saying UNMISS had made very clear statements on what occurred.
The rebel faction has called for UNMISS to conduct a full investigation of the circumstances which led to the chopper crash.
"We pledge a full cooperation with the investigation team once formed," said Koang.
The helicopter, which was contracted from a Russian company, was on a routine cargo flight from Wau in Western Bahr El Ghazal state to Bentiu, when contact was lost at 2.28pm (local time), a UN spokesperson has confirmed.
UNMISS subsequently dispatched a search and rescue team to the site of the incident.
The sole surviving crew member has received treatment from Médecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) in Bentiu.
POLITICAL POINT SCORING
In a separate statement issued from the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, the rebel faction said it empathised with the families of those who perished as a result of the unfortunate event, accusing the government of using the incident to gain political leverage.
"The SPLM/SPLA [in Opposition] would like to take this opportunity to refute these malicious allegations levelled by the propaganda machine of the Government of the Republic of South Sudan (GRSS)," said the statement, which bore the signature of Mabior Garang de Mabior, the chairperson of the committee for information and public relations.
According to the statement, rebel commanders in the field reported hearing a loud explosion near Rubkona airstrip and upon investigation found that an aircraft had crashed.
"The area in which the plane was reportedly shot down is government-held territory, if indeed the aircraft was shot down. It is unfortunate that the GRSS propaganda machine is trying to capitalise on this unfortunate event to score political points," the statement adds.
UN EXTENDS CONDOLENCES
Toby Lanzer, the officer-in-charge of UNMISS, also extended his sympathies to the families of the deceased crew members following the incident.
"I wish to convey my heartfelt condolences to the families of the deceased and wish a full and speedy recovery to the injured crew member," said Lanzer.
Opposition forces loyal to former vice-president Riek Machar have been engaged in an armed struggle with the South Sudanese government since conflict erupted in mid-December last year after a political dispute with the country's ruling party (SPLM) turned violent.
Unity state has been a flashpoint for violence since the conflict broke out, with Bentiu changing hands several times between the warring parties.