UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Sudan government forces threatened to shoot at a Medivac helicopter trying to evacuate three badly wounded U.N. peacekeepers from the disputed Abyei region, delaying its take-off for three hours, a top U.N. official said on Thursday.
The three Ethiopian blue-helmets subsequently died, U.N. peacekeeping chief Alain Le Roy told reporters.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has protested to Sudan’s U.N. ambassador over this week’s incident, Le Roy said.
A landmine explosion hit a patrol of the recently arrived U.N. Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA) was hit on Tuesday in Mabok, southeast of Abyei town, in the region disputed between Sudan and newly independent South Sudan.
One peacekeeper was killed instantly and the United Nations sought to fly out three others.
But Sudanese forces blocked a U.N. Medivac helicopter from taking off from Kadugli in Sudan’s neighboring South Kordofan province to fly to Abyei to collect the wounded men, saying the flight was not authorized, Le Roy said.
“We didn’t get the clearance for the Medivac helicopter to take off immediately,” he said. “They prevented us to take off by threatening to shoot at the helicopter.”
There was a delay of at least three hours before the helicopter was finally allowed to leave. The three peacekeepers died hours after the explosion, but Le Roy said it was difficult to say if they could have been saved had the helicopter been allowed to take off immediately.
Seven other peacekeepers were less seriously wounded by the explosion.
Le Roy and U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said Ban had later called in the Sudanese ambassador to complain over the incident.
“The secretary-general made it abundantly clear that this was a question of saving lives and that delay of any kind was unacceptable,” Nesirky said.
The United Nations says that under its status-of-forces agreements with Sudan and other countries where it has peacekeepers, medical evacuation helicopters can take off immediately.
Sudan and South Sudan both hope to include Abyei in their territory. South Sudan seceded from the north to form a new nation on July 9 in line with the results of a January referendum held as part of a 2005 peace deal that ended decades of civil war between the north and south.
Khartoum and Juba have yet to agree on who will control Abyei, stirring fears a long-running quarrel over the region could sour the secession and spark a broader conflict.
In response to escalating fighting in Abyei, the U.N. Security Council in June authorized the deployment of 4,200 Ethiopian troops to the Abyei region for six months.
Officials say about 1,500 of those have so far arrived, but that Sudanese and South Sudanese forces have not yet withdrawn from the region, as they are required to do.
Tuesday’s incident marked UNISFA’s first deaths.