January 24, 2012 / 8:36 PM / 6 years ago

Russia to pull helicopters from South Sudan

* President Medvedev decrees withdrawal after U.N. Sudan mission ends

* Africa envoy’s spokeswoman says security concerns not involved

* U.N. diplomats say Russia’s refusal to fly behind slow deployment

By Steve Gutterman

MOSCOW, Jan 24 (Reuters) - Russia will withdraw its helicopters and personnel servicing the United Nations peacekeeping force in South Sudan, the Kremlin said on Tuesday, a move that will cause problems for the stretched mission.

The move followed expressions of concern by Russian diplomats over security in South Sudan, including attacks on helicopters operated by Russia’s military.

But Varvara Paal, spokeswoman for Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s Africa envoy Mikhail Margelov, said the withdrawal had nothing to do with security.

“The Russian contingent of peacekeepers made a meaningful contribution to the process of the peaceful division of the state (Sudan), which ended in July of last year,” Margelov said in a statement.

The U.N. Mission in Sudan, known as UNMIS, ended shortly after South Sudan became independent last July under a 2005 peace pact that ended decades of civil war, and the Russian contingent then worked with a new U.N. mission established in South Sudan.

The Russian departure comes as Africa’s newest country grapples with tribal and rebel violence and a dispute with Sudan over oil revenues.

A Kremlin statement said an unspecified number of personnel and Mi-8MT helicopters would be withdrawn by April 1. Paal said there were four helicopters remaining after the withdrawal of another four in December.

Russia’s U.N. mission said earlier this month that Moscow was alarmed by attacks on utility helicopters operated by the Russian military for UNMISS.

“Recently the situation in providing security to the Russian helicopter crews has been deteriorating,” the mission said.

U.N. diplomats and officials told Reuters in New York that the main reason for the slow deployment of UNMISS troops to an area in South Sudan where clashes have taken place was Russia’s refusal to fly its helicopters there.

“It is clear that the reason why Russia has (grounded) the helicopters is based on the threat and the risk the troops have faced,” said Susana Malcorra, undersecretary-general of the U.N. Department of Field Support.

Additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau in New York; Editing by Angus MacSwan

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