UN helicopter shot down in South Sudan

Nairobi - A rebel commander who warned the UN not to fly over his territory shot down a UN helicopter on Tuesday in rural South Sudan, a spokesperson for a state governor said.

The UN confirmed one of its helicopters had crashed but said it was investigating the cause.

The governor's spokesperson said three people died in the crash. The UN did not immediately confirm any deaths.

The UN mission said that an Mi-8 cargo helicopter crashed near Bentiu, a hotly contested area between the government and rebel fighters. The UN said it was deeply concerned about the fate of its crew and that a search and rescue team had been sent to the site.

The rebel commander Peter Gadet had warned the UN last week not to fly over his territory, said the spokesperson for the governor of Northern Bahr el-Ghazal state, Akol Ayom Wek. Gadet's forces shot down the helicopter with a rocket-propelled grenade, said Wek.

The helicopter had apparently been shot down, said a UN official who insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

Wek said the UN response team reported finding three dead and one survivor at the crash site. The UN did not immediately say how many people had been on board.

South Sudan has seen widespread violence since December between rebels loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar and government soldiers loyal to President Salva Kiir.

The helicopter's downing comes one day after the two warring sides signed an agreement in Ethiopia to work toward a permanent cease-fire and form a national unity government within 45 days.

No control

Wek, who serves in a region loyal to Kiir, said the shoot-down by Gadet confirms that Machar has no control over him and other rebel fighters and commanders, calling into question Machar's role in negotiations as leader of the rebels.

Gadet, Wek said, was also responsible for impounding a UN helicopter over the weekend that was carrying a six-member verification team from the regional bloc called IGAD. One member of that team died of natural causes while being held.

"The government of South Sudan is profoundly disturbed by the loss of three UNMISS members who dedicated their lives to the service of humanity," Wek said.

In December 2012 the UN said South Sudan's armed forces shot down a UN helicopter, killing all four Russian crew members on board. South Sudan's military spokesperson blamed that shoot-down on rebel fighters.

Elsewhere in South Sudan, Wek said that the son of deceased South Sudan rebel leader John Garang was arrested in Ethiopia after being discovered at a reception at Kiir's hotel with a loaded gun. Wek said that during interrogation Mabior Garang said he wanted to confront Kiir for destroying his father's legacy, suggesting that Garang may have intended to carry out an assassination attempt.

Ethiopian officials couldn't immediately be reached for comment.