UN admits blunder over Belarus helicopter delivery to Laurent Gbagbo

* From: AFP

THE United Nations has admitted that it had falsely accused Belarus of sending three attack helicopters to Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo.

UN peacekeeping chief Alain Le Roy made a public apology to Belarus for the "mistake" which he blamed on erroneous reporting by the UN mission in Ivory Coast.

The apology was a blow to the UN ahead of a key Security Council debate later today on attacks on UN peacekeepers in Ivory Coast and rising tensions between followers of Gbagbo and internationally recognised president Alassane Ouattara.

Mr Le Roy called it "a very bad incident for us".

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon released a statement last Monday saying Belarus had "reportedly" sent three attack helicopters to Gbagbo, in what he called "a serious violation" of an international arms embargo ordered in 2004.

Belarus and Gbagbo's camp denied the charge and UN officials later admitted they had not been able to substantiate the claim. But UN experts were shot at by Gbagbo forces when they went to Yamassoukro airport to try to check the reports, UN officials said.

"I must admit the report from the mission was a mistake. There was no plane landed," Le Roy said.

"Therefore I met this morning the charge d'affaires of Belarus and I expressed our deep regrets and our apologies for the damage caused to Belarus due to a wrong reporting from this mission."

Le Roy said he took responsibility for the mistake and he had ordered an investigation. He said Gbagbo's administration had also been told that the claims were wrong.

UN officials have not yet disclosed the source of the intelligence given to UN sanctions experts who sounded the alarm. The experts told the UN mission, which reported that a plane had landed, and it was decided to release Mr Ban's statement.

Mr Ban said the first helicopter had arrived last Sunday the other two were to be delivered the following day.

The peacekeeping chief said the error could have made because the UN experts heard a plane landing but were prevented by Gbagbo forces from entering the airport.

The United Nations is on heightened alert in Ivory Coast because of the increased fighting and Mr Ban has warned that the country could return to the civil war that erupted in 2002.

A presidential election held last November was the first since the conflict, but Gbagbo has refused to accept UN-certified results declaring Ouattara the winner.

The deadlock has intensified since then with Gbagbo occupying the presidential palace and Ouattara making his government headquarters protected by UN peacekeepers.

Mr Le Roy said Belarus had "reconfirmed" in writing yesterday that it sticks to the embargo.

Diplomats said, however, the country has been suspected of breaching the embargo.

Diplomats from at least two Security Council nations said their missions called the Belarus missions on Sunday after the UN sanctions committee experts first reported the expected arrival of the helicopters.

One envoy said the calls could have headed off the deliveries.

"This could be a case of the sanctions working," commented one diplomat.


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