By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS, March 2 (Reuters) - A senior U.N. official apologized on Wednesday for mistaken U.N. allegations that an illegal shipment of attack helicopters had been delivered from Belarus to Ivory Coast's incumbent leader Laurent Ggagbo.
Even though a report about about a partial delivery of helicopters was erroneous, diplomats said it may have helped avert further violence in Ivory Coast, where Ggagbo is trying to retain power after a November election that U.N.-certified results showed was won by his opponent.
The office of U.N. Secretary-General General Ban Ki-moon made the charge in a statement on Monday, saying the "first delivery arrived reportedly." It declared that the transfer was "a serious violation of the embargo against Cote d'Ivoire which has been in place since 2004."
But U.N. Security Council diplomats, including Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, questioned the veracity of the allegation when it emerged that the delivery had not been confirmed by U.N. peacekeepers and a U.N.-appointed panel of experts who monitor compliance with the sanctions.
Reacting to those doubts, Ban later softened his remarks when speaking to reporters in Washington. "If it is confirmed, this will be a direct violation of (the) arms embargo by the Security Council," he said. "We are trying to confirm this."
On Wednesday, peacekeeping chief Alain Le Roy told reporter, "I must admit the report from the mission ... was a mistake. There was no plane landed."
He said there would be an internal investigation of the erroneous report.
Le Roy said he met a senior diplomat from Belarus's U.N. mission "and expressed our deep regrets and our apologies for the damage caused to Belarus." He said Belarus had vowed to comply with the arms embargo against Ivory Coast.
Le Roy did not, however, say that other information contained in Ban's statement on Monday about a planned transfer of attack helicopters to Ggagbo from Belarus was incorrect.
ORIGINAL INTEL WAS "CREDIBLE"
According to several U.N. diplomats, the original intelligence behind the allegation came from the United States and was deemed credible by the so-called U.N. Group of Experts, who then shared their assessment with the U.N. mission.
The diplomats said Belarus has long been suspected of violating the Ivory Coast arms embargo.
"It appears that by acting and publishing this information, which was based on credible intelligence, the U.N. secretariat was able to prevent the imminent delivery of the helicopters," a diplomat told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
Given the severity of the situation on the ground and concerns about escalating violence in Ivory Coast, U.N. officials in Ivory Coast and in New York decided on Sunday to go public with the allegation against Belarus, diplomats said.
A post-election power struggle between Ggagbo and his rival Alassane Ouattara, almost universally recognized as winner of the November election, risks pushing the top cocoa-growing country back into full-blown civil war.
"If Ggagbo had gotten hold of attack helicopters it would have been disastrous," one diplomat said. "The information was credible enough and the allegation so severe that the U.N. secretariat did the right thing by acting when it did."
Another diplomat concluded: "This is a story of the sanctions working."
But the incident has turned out to be highly embarrassing for Ban, who is seeking a second term as secretary-general when his first five-year term ends in December 2011, envoys said. They added that Russia, a veto-wielding permanent Security Council member that could block Ban's second term, has made no attempt to hide its annoyance with Ban for accusing Moscow's ally Belarus of violating the Ivory Coast sanctions. (Editing by Bill Trott)