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South Sudan Acquires First Military Aircrafts Ahead of Secession Vote

South Sudan’s military is in the process of acquiring 10 Russian-made helicopters, according to documents seen by VOA.

The Southern Sudan government is purchasing 10 Mi-17 military transport helicopters from Kazan, a Russian company, for a total cost of $75 million, according to a March 2009 supplement to a May 2007 contract between the two parties. The contract was signed on behalf of South Sudan by the SPLA chief of staff, James Hoth Mai.

Nine of the helicopters are the “standard transport” Mi-17-V5 models, which according to Kazan’s website can carry up to 36 passengers. The other is a “VIP” Mi-172 , which can carry up to 11 in executive comfort and fashion.

The first shipment of 4 Mi-17-V5 helicopters was to land at Entebbe Airport in Uganda on August 12 aboard an Antonov AN-124 airlift jet, according to communication between the two parties early that month.

The delivery had been delayed from the May 2010 delivery date stated in the contract. The original timeframe had the third and final shipment arriving in September.

A spokesman for the Sudan Armed Forces said that the Khartoum authorities were aware of the purchase, but said that they were assured by South Sudan’s leaders that the aircraft were only for civilian use.

The spokesman for SPLA, Lieutenant General Kuol Deim Kuol, refused to comment. The spokesman for the Southern Sudan government, Minister of Information Barnaba Marial Benjamin denied the region had acquired any helicopters.

The Mi-17 is a popular export model of a Russian helicopter design first used to in its 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. While not an attack helicopter like an Mi-24, the Mi-17 can be used for crude offensive purposes if outfitted with guns or bombs.

Since its inception in 1983, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army – which started as a rebel movement but became South Sudan’s official military following a 2005 peace deal – has operated only as a ground force.

The purchase follows a steady stream of military purchases by both parties of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which ended the second of two long civil wars between north and south Sudan.

The CPA was supposed to curb the re-armament of both sides by effectively giving each side a veto power over any new significant purchases by a Joint Defense Board. But according to research conducted by the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey, the JDB in practice has played little role scrutinizing purchases.

"This is probably a technical violation if it is being imported by the SPLA, and since it is equipment that could be used for military purposes,” said EJ Hogendoorn, Horn of Africa project director for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

“But it is not a gross violation,” he said, pointing out that both sides have been actively re-arming since the CPA, with the north’s stockpile drastically dwarfing that of the south. “To my knowledge, the Sudan Armed Forces have imported at least 10 Mi-24s since 2005."

The north-south border areas in Sudan, where most of the country’s known oil reserves lie, are becoming increasingly militarized and tense as the January referendum nears, according to an ICG report released yesterday. Border demarcation has yet to take place.

Preparations for the January referendum are far behind schedule, and registration has not yet begun. Southern Sudan’s leaders have warned that any delay of the vote would constitute an acceptable breach of the peace agreement.