22nd Mar 2018

EU wary over Ukraine weapons in South Sudan

  • Some 1 million people in South Sudan face starvation (Photo: UNited Nations Photo)

A lanky South Sudanese soldier steps forward amid the throng of refugees at a settlement camp in northern Uganda and presents himself as Duku Eduwar.

At 30-years old, Eduwar, like many others, had trekked on foot through the bush for days to flee an ongoing war fuelled by weapons partly supplied by Ukraine and by middle men based in EU states.

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Eduwar says he had been forced to work for the rebel group, but managed his escape a year later before turning up at Imvepi, a sprawling settlement where buses full of refugees arrive every 20 minutes to be registered.

"I came here to get something to eat," he told EUobserver earlier this month.

Nearby, women and children were queuing for food amid the intense heat of the sun, dust, and the loud popping sounds of a choking generator.

An estimated 100,000 people are dying of starvation in South Sudan, with a further 1 million near to starvation.

Most have lost everything in a war that erupted in December 2013, when former vice president Riek Machar, a Nuer, was dismissed by South Sudanese president Salva Kiir, a Dinka.

The war has broader implications for the EU, which is working to address the root causes of migration in an effort to stem the flows from north Africa into Italy.

The Ukraine connection

But a $42.8 million ($33m) contract for Mi-24 attack helicopters - between forces loyal to the South Sudanese president and Ukraine - might complicate that task.

It has also cast a long shadow over Kiev's commitment to a 2014 EU arms embargo on South Sudan, and poses tricky questions for an EU that is edging Ukraine away from Russia as part of a wider plan of Western integration.

Kiev had already been supplying the South Sudanese government forces with weapons prior to the outbreak of fighting in 2013, purchased from the proceeds of oil revenues.

But a UN Security Council investigation revealed that Ukraine had sold the helicopters to Juba long after the schisms between Kiir and Machar had descended into bloody chaos.

Motor Sich, a Ukrainian company, provided the technical support and had teams on the ground servicing the choppers up until at least early 2016.

"They have been seen to be used against civilian targets, they have been reportedly been used too against an ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) hospital," the lead investigator behind the UN panel told EUobserver last week on Thursday (18 May).

Reports have also emerged that Uganda is running weapons, and supplied two L-39 ground attack jet fighters - possibly contracted through Ukraine - to the Juba forces.

An aircraft manifest - taken from a flight that took off from Ukraine to Uganda earlier this year - indicated that it contained two L-39 jets and engines provided by Musket OU, a company based in Tallinn, Estonia.

Such jets had already been spotted in late June and early July last year in South Sudan, when the war suddenly escalated and triggered a massive exodus of refugees into neighbouring countries.

"These jets are likely being operated out of Uganda, near an airbase in northern Uganda called Gulu," noted the UN investigator.

Among the pilots flying combat missions from Juba, named in the UN probe, is a Hungarian national, who had also been training the Ugandan forces.

Denial and defence

A spokesperson from Uganda People's Defence Force (UPDF) has denied the reports, telling Ugandan daily newspaper New Vision over the weekend that the country is an "extremely law abiding international player".

A line of defence had also emerged from the EU's delegation in Kampala.

The EU's top envoy to country, ambassador Kristian Schmidt, said Uganda had a legitimate interest in sending troops to Juba - to stabilise its northern neighbour.

"Uganda is not breaking any laws, if it is true, that it is a transit country for arms to the [South Sudan] government," Schimdt told reporters in early May.

"We have to remember that there is no arms embargo in place," he said of Uganda, following the UN report.

In Brussels, a European Commission spokesperson said they had also been assured that Ukraine had ceased supplying weapons to South Sudan since mid-2016.

"The EU will continue to apply its own arms embargo and to urge the UN Security Council to impose an arms embargo," wrote the spokesperson in an email.

But broader questions from the European Parliament remain. The institution had adopted a resolution on South Sudan just last week.

The resolution, a non-binding demand, says that brokers based in EU member states are facilitating the weapons trade to the war-torn country.

"The EU needs to work for a total arms embargo on the country, with strict controls to stop arms exports from European countries to South Sudan," centre-right Portugese MEP Jose Inacio told the plenary session in the EU parliament last week.


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