By Nikola Krastev
UNITED NATIONS -- The United Nations has admitted it made a rare error when it issued a statement from Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on February 27 accusing Belarus of delivering three attack helicopters to the embattled former president of Ivory Coast in violation of the UN arms embargo.
In announcing the mistake on March 2, Alain Le Roy, undersecretary-general for peacekeeping operations and the most senior UN official involved, admitted that the report's falseness was known as early as February 28.
Le Roy did not explain why there was a 48-hour delay between when the truth became known and when it was admitted publicly.
Almost immediately after accusing Belarus of the violation, the UN began hedging its bets over the credibility of the report. Subsequent statements about the alleged helicopter deliveries were changed to the conditional, "if confirmed."
Now a full-fledged inquiry has been launched at the UN Mission in Ivory Coast to discover how the allegations came to be made in the first place.
Le Roy speculated what might have happened: "Probably it happened because [the UN monitors in Ivory Coast ]...heard the noise of a plane but were not able to go into the airport [to investigate. Both our people and the group of [UN] experts tried to go inside the airfield [but] they were prevented from doing so."
Le Roy, who oversees UN ground operations around the globe, candidly accepted the blame for the mistake and qualified it as a "very bad incident." His straightforward approach seemed to assuage the UN press corps, and might be why reporters were less vigorous in their questioning of the incident.
"This misleading report is a very bad incident for us. As you may know, that [happening] is extremely rare. We don't do that -- each time we check several times all the reports we are sending, that are sent from the field to us [at UN peacekeeping headquarters]," Le Roy said.
No Plane Landed
According to details that have emerged, on the evening of February 27, the UN Secretariat in New York received a written report from the UN ground mission in Yamoussoukro, Ivory Coast that a plane from Belarus had landed.
Le Roy said if the plane was carrying even one helicopter it would have been a serious violation of the UN arms embargo for Ivory Coast and triggered an escalation of an already dangerous situation.
He said that's why UN officials decided to issue a statement from Ban's office accusing Belarus of violating the arms embargo.
But the report from the UN mission on the ground in Yamoussoukro was incorrect. No plane had landed that evening, and Le Roy called allegations that it had, a "clear mistake."
The false report originated with a UN group of experts on the scene in Ivory Coast, who alerted the chairman of the sanctions committee, who in turn briefed the Department of Peacekeeping Operations. Then the matter was brought to the attention of the secretary-general.
Le Roy was at a loss to explain the origins of the information that the presumed plane carrying choppers was from Belarus: "We don't deal with the sources of the group of experts, they have access to various intelligence that I am not aware of."
Doubts over the report's accuracy surfaced almost immediately after Ban's statement was released. Minsk resolutely rejected the accusations, Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo himself denied the report, and RFE/RL spoke to a representative at Belarus's UN mission who said the report was simply not true.
Vitaly Churkin, the Russian permanent representative to the UN, said he knew on February 28 that the report -- which he called "much ado about nothing" -- was false. He said he regretted that Ban's office had gotten involved in the dubious claims.
Serious doubts over the accuracy of the report were also expressed by the Brazilian and French ambassadors to the UN.