Sudan rebels say shoot down warplane; army blames malfunction

KHARTOUM Thu Dec 20, 2012 9:19am EST

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KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Rebels fighting to overthrow Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir said on Thursday they had shot down a MiG-23 combat jet and threatened all military aircraft flying over areas they control with the same fate.

The Sudanese military acknowledged that one its planes had crashed and the pilot had been killed while landing in El-Obeid, capital of North Kordofan state which borders South Kordofan, but it blamed the crash on a technical failure.

Conflict has torn Sudan's southern border states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile for more than a year, causing hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes.

The rebels, known as SPLM-North, say they are fighting to protect ethnic minorities from repression and marginalization, while Khartoum accuses them of trying to spread chaos at the bidding of South Sudan, which seceded last year.

"Your forces in the Sudanese Revolutionary Front of the SPLM-North in South Kordofan/Nuba Mountains air defense unit damaged a MiG-23 warplane from the Khartoum regime's air force," an SPLM-North statement said, adding that plane had been on a bombing mission and had crashed after being hit.

The Sudanese Revolutionary Front is a rebel alliance that includes the SPLM-North in both South Kordofan and Blue Nile, as well as other insurgent groups in Darfur.

"After today there is no safety for any warplane flying over liberated regions," the SPLM-North statement said.

It was not possible to verify either the rebel account or the government version in a country that restricts access to conflict zones for journalists and other independent observers.

The SPLM-North rebels have made similar claims in the past. Last week they said they had shot down a military Antonov plane with anti-aircraft machinegun fire.

Fighting began in South Kordofan in June 2011, just before South Sudan seceded, and spread to Blue Nile in September.

The SPLM-North fought as part of the southern insurgent army during Sudan's decades-long north-south civil war. A 2005 peace deal ended that conflict and led to southern secession. But partition left SPLM-North fighters in Sudan's territory.

Sudan's air fleet, degraded by years of U.S. sanctions and other problems, has suffered several crashes in recent years.

Thirty-two people, including a government minister, died when a plane taking them to an Islamic festival crashed in August. The government blamed bad weather.

In October, a military plane bound for Darfur crashed near Khartoum, killing 15 people, and a military helicopter crashed in El-Obeid last December. Both crashes were attributed to technical problems.

(Reporting by Khalid Abdelaziz and Alexander Dziadosz; Writing by Alexander Dziadosz; Editing by Alistair Lyon)

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