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Rebels, Russian pilot were beaten in Darfur: UN

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - A missing Russian pilot and three rebel commanders were beaten when their U.N. helicopter landed off target in Sudan’s conflict-torn Darfur region earlier this week, a U.N. spokesman said on Wednesday.

The helicopter lost contact after landing in a mainly Arab tribal area in Sudan’s troubled west on Monday. It was carrying three Darfur rebels from the Liberty and Justice Movement on their way to peace talks, the United Nations said.

Sudan’s army grounded the helicopter after it missed its destination because of bad weather, U.N. officials said on Tuesday. They denied earlier reports that it had been seized by rebels.

“Three Liberty and Justice Movement commanders who were on board ... and the pilot, were beaten at the scene,” U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said. “Subsequently the crew and passengers, with the exception of the pilot, were taken to a government military camp.”

It was not immediately clear who was responsible for the beating. Nesirky said the United Nations was investigating.

He said the United Nations was worried about the fate of the missing pilot and that the joint U.N.-African Union peacekeeping force (UNAMID) was searching for him.

“The crew and the Liberty and Justice Movement commanders returned to Nyala yesterday,” Nesirky said, adding that “the pilot is still unaccounted for.”

“The United Nations remains deeply concerned about his welfare,” he said about the pilot. “UNAMID is working with the government of Sudan to locate him.”

Sudan’s U.N. Ambassador Abdalmahmoud Abdalhaleem was not immediately available for comment.

The helicopter belonged to Russian aviation firm UTair and had been working in Darfur on a contract to supply the UNAMID peacekeepers.

The grounding of the helicopter due to the weather coincided with increasing complaints about restrictions the government of Sudan has been imposing on the movements of UNAMID in Darfur, including the flying of helicopters.

In his latest report to the U.N. Security Council, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said more than 90 flights had been denied by the Sudanese government between March and June.

The Sudanese ambassador has denied that any restrictions have been placed on UNAMID by Khartoum.

The U.N. Security Council is expected to renew UNAMID’s mandate for one more year on Thursday. Ban’s report said the security situation in Darfur has been deteriorating.

U.N. officials estimate that as many as 300,000 people have died in Darfur since insurgents took up arms in 2003, accusing Khartoum of neglecting the arid region. Khartoum puts the death toll at around 10,000.

Editing by Eric Beech