JUBA, Sudan (Reuters) - The recent arrival of the first of 10 helicopters marks the birth of South Sudan’s air force, the army spokesman said on Friday, enabling the southern military to tackle militia groups and secure its vast territory.
Early results from a January 9 southern referendum, promised in a 2005 peace accord that ended four decades of war with the north, show an overwhelming vote for secession, expected to result in independence on July 9.
The north’s air domination was a major advantage during the civil war, but Khartoum has indicated it will accept the loss of its oil-producing south, improving the prospects of a stable southern state and economic growth.
“This is the first attempt to equip an air force and make it functional ... we need a strong army when we are an independent nation,” said the southern army (SPLA) spokesman, Philip Aguer.
Aguer did not say where the aircraft had been bought from, but said they were transport helicopters which could be used as gunships against the Ugandan rebel Lord’s Resistance Army — whose cross-border raids have terrorised the south for years.
“If there are attacks from the LRA ... we must be capable of getting our forces to the border quickly, which we have not been able to do (in the past),” said Aguer.
The SPLA’s new mobility will take pressure off the U.N. peacekeeping mission, which transported voting materials across the south for the referendum, he said.
UNMIS also transports officials when necessary because of the lack of roads, as the former guerrilla fighters prepare to form an independent government and a regular army.
Aguer said the south’s air force would not antagonise Khartoum because of the north’s vastly superior air power.
“They have hundreds of jet fighters, how could they be antagonised by 10 transport helicopters? ... we want to help them and work together to make Sudan secure in the future.”
The northern army spokesman said he was not worried.
“They are transport helicopters,” al-Sawarmi Khaled said. “Obviously they can be used as military helicopters if they want, but it seems they are not intending to do that.”
Gunbattles between tribes in the heavily armed south and SPLA clashes with anti-government militias are common. Aguer said the helicopters were also needed to secure the south’s vast territory, roughly the size of Francea.
The SPLA have killed five militia fighters in clashes this week, he said, highlighting simmering insecurity in the south.
Preliminary results of the referendum will be announced on January 30, but analysts say the south may struggle to unify a region split by warring tribes and ex-military renegades.