Update: UN copter shot down in South Sudan, crew killed

All four crew members on a U.N. helicopter were killed Friday after the South Sudanese army shot it down. The army said it mistook the aircraft for a plane supplying rebels.

JUBA, South Sudan — South Sudan's army shot down a U.N. peacekeeping helicopter in Jonglei state on Friday, killing the four Russian crew members on board, U.N. and military officials said.

A U.N. source said the helicopter was on a reconnaissance mission in an area where the SPLA, South Sudan's army, has been fighting rebels led by David Yau Yau.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the attack on the "clearly marked" helicopter and in a statement called "on the government of South Sudan to immediately carry out an investigation and bring to account those responsible for this act."

He demanded measures to prevent any further incidents in South Sudan, where the U.N. mission known as UNMISS was created after the region seceded from Sudan in July 2011.

South Sudan's army first denied it had shot down the Russian helicopter but later said it had mistaken it for a Sudanese plane supplying Yau Yau rebels in Jonglei.

"We regret the incident," army spokesman Philip Aguer said, adding an artillery unit had spotted a plane landing in an area where Yau Yau forces were operating.

"We saw a white plane landing and asked UNMISS whether they had any flight in the area but they denied it. The army opened fire because it thought it was an enemy plane supplying Yau Yau with weapons." he said. "We later heard UNMISS had a flight there. They should have informed us."

HIGH RISK

South Sudan often accuses Sudan of airdropping weapons to rebels in Jonglei.

Russia's Itar-tass news agency quoted a source at the Russian Embassy in South Sudan as saying the Mi-8 helicopter owned by Nizhnevartovskavia was working under a U.N. contract when it was downed.

Earlier this year, Russia said it would withdraw helicopters and personnel servicing the U.N. mission in South Sudan after voicing alarm at attacks on U.N. helicopters there.

In September, South Sudanese soldiers killed at least 10 troops when they shot and sank one of their own military riverboats in a remote region after mistaking it for an enemy craft, the army said.

South Sudan has been struggling since independence to build up state institutions in a country awash with weapons after decades of civil war ended with a 2005 peace agreement.

Human rights groups often accuse the SPLA, a loose group of former guerrillas, of human rights violations and abuses. The army denies this.

Yau Yau, a former theology student, heads one of several militias fighting the government. South Sudan accuses Sudan of supporting the rebels, but Sudan denies this.

(Reporting by Ulf Laessing and the Moscow bureau)

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