UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Ground attack jets of the kind that a U.N. report says may have been used by Sudan’s government in strikes in Darfur in violation of an arms embargo were in plain view of Security Council diplomats during their visit this month to Sudan’s conflict-torn region.
Sudan has acquired 15 Russian-made Sukhoi Su-25 “Frogfoot” jets from Belarus since 2008, and there is controversy over whether the Sudanese government has used them for air attacks against Darfuris in defiance of the 2005 U.N. arms embargo.
The presence of the jets in Darfur was not proof by itself that they have been used in attacks on Darfuris but was “highly suspicious,” one Security Council diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters.
Four of the jets appeared in a Reuters photograph taken on October 8 as Sudanese officials were bidding farewell to the 15-nation Security Council delegation at the airport in El Fasher, North Darfur, in Sudan’s west.
Darfur rebels say the government had been bombarding their positions in Jabel Marra in the run-up to, and during, the Security Council’s October 5-9 visit to Sudan.
A report by a U.N. expert panel that monitors compliance with the embargo indicates that some of the 15 Su-25s may have been used in military operations in Darfur, diplomats said.
Sudan’s government had assured Belarus the jets would not be used in Darfur and told the expert panel that this promise had been kept, the diplomats said on condition of anonymity. The report has not been officially released but diplomats have disclosed its key findings.
The arms embargo does not ban supplying military hardware to Sudan, but nations are required to have guarantees from Sudan’s government that the arms will not end up in Darfur.
A Reuters reporter accompanying the delegation took the photograph of the Su-25s in full view of Sudanese and U.N. security officials and Security Council diplomats.
Several envoys in the delegation also noticed the jets and voiced surprise that Sudan’s government left them on the tarmac near a U.N. plane that was taking the envoys to the capital Khartoum.
The jets in the photograph were identified by three experts: John Pike at Globalsecurity.org, a Washington-based security and defense website; Bud Cole, a professor at the Pentagon’s National Defense University; and Gareth Jennings, managing editor of Jane’s Missiles and Rockets.
“They are specifically designed to attack ground targets and are the Russian equivalent of the U.S. Air Force A-10 Warthog,” Jennings said in a statement to Reuters.
While in Sudan, U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice and British Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said they were alarmed by the deteriorating security situation in Darfur, where millions of displaced Darfuris live in squalid camps and are dependent on humanitarian aid for survival.
Later, Sudanese officials arrested some of the Darfuris who spoke to Rice and others, a U.S. official said, prompting Washington to call for a council meeting on the issue on Monday. Sudan, however, denied the allegation.
Reports of aerial bombardment are difficult to prove. The U.N.-African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur often does not get access to conflict areas to monitor such violations.
The office of Sudan’s U.N. Ambassador Daffa-Alla Elhag Ali Osman acknowledged receiving an e-mail from Reuters asking about the jets and had no immediate comment. The U.N. mission of Belarus did not not answer its telephone or respond to an e-mailed query.
The conflict in Darfur flared in 2003 when mostly non-Arab rebels took up arms against the government, accusing it of neglecting the region. A series of cease-fires, negotiations and international campaigns has failed to end the fighting. Law and order has collapsed in most of the region.
The United Nations estimates up to 300,000 people died in the humanitarian crisis after Khartoum mobilized militias to quell the revolt. Khartoum puts the death toll at 10,000.
Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague for genocide and other war crimes in Darfur.
China has attempted to block the publication of the expert panel’s report because of a section that says Chinese bullets were used in attacks on the U.N.-African Union peacekeepers in Darfur, diplomats say.
U.S. and other Western delegations have suggested that they would like to expand the arms embargo to cover all arms sales to Khartoum but diplomats say China would never allow that.
Additional reporting by Jim Wolf in Washington; Editing by Will Dunham