By Gordon Fairclough
The United Nations secretary-general said a suspected shipment of helicopter gunships from Belarus to Ivory Coast is a "serious violation" of an international arms embargo imposed on the West African nation, whose longtime ruler is clinging to power despite losing a presidential election.
Belarusóan impoverished former Soviet republic that earns critical income by exporting weapons ranging from assault rifles to missiles, aircraft and tanksódenied Monday that it had sent the helicopters, which the U.N. said apparently began arriving Sunday in the Ivorian capital, Yamoussoukro.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon demanded "full compliance" with the arms embargo and called for an urgent meeting of the Security Council. He ordered U.N. peacekeepers in Ivory Coast to "take all necessary action" to prevent the three helicopters from being used.
The helicoptersóbelieved by the U.N. to be a variant of what is known as an Mi-24 in Russia and as a Hind gunship in the Westówere destined for forces loyal to Laurent Gbagbo, who lost Ivory Coast's November presidential vote but refuses to step down despite international pressure, the U.N. said.
The aircraft, armed with machine guns and missiles, risk escalating the conflict in Ivory Coast, which Mr. Ban has said is teetering on the brink of civil war. The gunships, used extensively during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, were dubbed "Satan's chariots" by guerrilla fighters there.
A U.N. official said U.N. soldiers trying to reach the airfield in Yamoussoukro to verify and monitor the helicopters' delivery were turned back by local security forces. "It's a very intense situation," the official said.
Fighting in Ivory Coast's commercial center, Abidjan, flared late last week, as supporters of Mr. Gbagbo fought running street battles with backers of the internationally recognized election victor, Alassane Ouattara.
Three U.N. peacekeepers were wounded when their patrol in an Abidjan suburb was ambushed by pro-Gbagbo forces, the U.N. said Sunday. The U.N., whose soldiers are protecting Mr. Ouattara, estimates more than 300 people have been killed since the disputed polls.
A spokesman for Mr. Gbagbo said the accusations about the helicopter deliveries "are unjustified. We will wait to see what the Security Council has to say."
Andrei Savinykh, a spokesman for the Belarussian foreign ministry, said statements about arms shipments to Ivory Coast are "slander" and part of a "campaign aimed at discrediting the country."
If Belarus is proved to have sold the helicopters to Mr. Gbagbo's forces, it could further isolate Minsk. The government is already facing tightened sanctions from the U.S. and European Union after its authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, cracked down on dissidents after a December election there.
U.S. officials in the past have accused Belarus of supplying weapons and training to countries that support terrorism, including to Iran and to Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Last year, the U.S. imposed sanctions on BelTechExport, which says it is Belarus's largest arms-trading company, under legislation barring exports of certain materials to North Korea, Iran and Syria.
Weapons from Belarus "have a track record of ending up in places subject to U.N. arms embargoes," said Hugh Griffiths, an expert on illicit arms trafficking at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Monica Mark, contributed to this article.