This week the U.S. announced economic sanctions against Sudan aimed in part at grounding the country’s secretive air force, which has been caught red-handed sneaking arms into the country. The Sudanese government has been accused of providing these arms to marauding Islamic Arab militias that have killed many tens of thousands of ethnic Africans in the western Darfur region in the past four years. Yesterday the Department of State named the embargoed firms, including Azza Air Transport Company, barred for “transferring small arms, ammunition and artillery to Sudanese government forces and Janjaweed militia in Darfur.”
Azza almost got away with it. But on February 24, an Azza-chartered Antonov An-12 transport flying out of the capital of Khartoum crashed on landing in Darfur (see photo above) with a load of small arms, ammo and howitzers. Witnesses snapped pictures of soldiers unloading the weapons. Google Earth even captured the damaged Antonov (left, corrected from earlier [thanks, Register!]).
Cargo planes, transport and attack choppers and even fighter-bombers have played shadowy roles in Khartoum’s campaign in Darfur. A confidential U.N. report leaked to the New York Times in April detailed the air transport bridge between Khartoum and the west and even featured photos of Sudanese transports painted in U.N. colors (right). Last week, British magazine Air Forces Monthly published an investigation of Chinese-made A-5 attack jets, painted in Sudanese colors and armed with rocket pods, that have been spotted deployed at Nyala airport in Darfur in violation of U.N. resolution 1591 (PDF!), which calls for an end to military action, including combat flights. AFM claims the A-5s were bought with Iranian funds and their crews trained at Dezful air base in Iran.
According to the leaked U.N. report, Sudan has used modified Antonov An-26 transports, also disguised in U.N. livery and wearing fake registry numbers, to bomb villages in Darfur. And the report says Khartoum continues to fly Mil Mi-24 attack choppers (below) and Mil Mi-17 transports, some of the latter in U.N. paint schemes, over Darfur, again in violation of resolution 1591. Both chopper types are visible in Google Earth snapshots of airstrips in Darfur (left). The Mi-24s are perhaps the same airframes used in a February 2002 rocket attack on a U.N. relief operation that killed 17 people.
Sudanese aircraft range freely and largely unmonitored due in part to Khartoum’s tight restrictions on foreign aircraft operating in its airspace. Aid flights are regularly denied permission to enter — denials that Khartoum can, in theory, enforce with its A-5s. But the U.N has recently demonstrated a willingness to challenge Sudan’s monopoly on air power in Darfur. When 3,000 U.N. peacekeepers arrive to assist the 7,000 African Union troops already in Darfur, they will bring along six of their own Mi-24s. It’s not clear which contributing nation will provide the gunships.