JUBA - The United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) has halted flights to Bentiu after a helicopter on a U.N. cargo mission crashed near the town, killing most of the Russian crew, said acting UNMISS head Toby Lanzer on Thursday.
"There is only one way into Bentiu and out of Bentiu at the moment, and that is on a helicopter or a very small aircraft. So the United Nations Mission in South Sudan and the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service... have grounded all flights to Bentiu," Lanzer told reporters at a news conference.
Bentiu hosts one of the largest U.N. operations in South Sudan. Around half of the thousands of people who have sought U.N. protection from the violence in the young country are in the Unity state capital.
Lanzer said UNMISS hopes to resume flights to Bentiu soon to serve those people.
"The scale of need in Bentiu is so high, the size of our operations there so large that we need to start flying to Bentiu as soon as possible," he said.
"But I have to make sure that our crews are safe, I have to make sure that our equipment is safe. At the end of the day, the safety of our personnel comes first," Lanzer said.
A spokesman for the South Sudan army told South Sudan in Focus that the helicopter was shot down by rebels loyal to opposition leader Riek Machar. Lanzer said the United Nations has not yet reached a conclusion as to what caused the crash.
But, he added, "For investigative purposes we are treating this as a hostile act against the United Nations."
Helicopters 'don't fall out of the sky'
"Helicopters fly, they don’t fall out of the sky. We now have the black box, we now have the voice recorder, we now have the control panel. The investigations started yesterday, analysis is taking place, and things are moving very fast,” Lanzer said.
U.N. investigators are talking to representatives of government and opposition forces about the crash. Both sides are engaged in fighting in the area where the helicopter crashed.
Lanzer said a memorial service will be held in Juba for the Russian crew members who died, and their bodies will be repatriated to Russia. The sole survivor of the crash was undergoing medical treatment in Juba, Lanzer said.
UN Security Council: Helicopter brought down
The U.N. Security Council separately condemned what it called the downing of the helicopter.
Security Council President Mark Lyall Grant said the helicopter was attacked. The incident put UNMISS operations in South Sudan in jeopardy, he said.
Lyall Grant called for swift and thorough investigations by UNMISS and the government of South Sudan, and said those found to be responsible for bringing down the aircraft "must be held accountable."
The Security Council also called on UNMISS to step up security measures and take steps to "avoid such attacks in the future."