Procurement: Belarus Can't Help It


March 3, 2011: The UN has accused Belarus of violating the 2004 arms embargo on Ivory Coast. The UN had received reports that, in the last two weeks, three Mi-24 helicopter gunships were unloaded in Ivory Coast, and that the shipment came from Belarus. When UN officials tried to get near the port area and take pictures, they were fired on by Ivory Coast troops. Belarus denied the charge. Russia backed up ally Belarus (the only East European country still run by Soviet era officials), which means any UN efforts to punish Belarus will likely get vetoed.

Belarus was one of the reasons for the arms embargo in the first place, having sold one faction (the southerners, who consider themselves the legitimate government) Su-25 attack aircraft back in 2004. That ended badly. Meanwhile, despite a four year long ceasefire, and ample foreign support to hold elections, the country again faces civil war. The presidential elections were held four months ago, and the northern (rebel) candidate (former prime minister Alassane Ouattara) won. Laurent Gbagbo, who won a legitimate election in 2000, declared the vote a fraud, and had himself declared the winner, with 51 percent of the vote. But the foreign observers and the UN insisted that Ouattara had won with 54 percent.

A former French colony and the world's top cocoa producer, Ivory Coast was once regarded as a haven of peace and stability, until a 1999 coup that toppled president Henri Konan Bedie. Long considered a peaceful country, that welcomed millions of immigrant workers to sustain a booming economy after its independence from France in 1960, up to 40 percent of the 16 million population is now foreign. The immigrants inflamed political, religious and ethnic frictions between the largely Muslim north and the predominantly Christian south and west. Until his death in 1993, these disputes were kept under control by the country's post-independence president, Felix Houphouet-Boigny. But like Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the ancient ethnic and religious animosities were still there, and were exploited by rival politicians after Houphouet-Boigny was gone. Elections were held and Laurent Gbagbo, a southern nationalist, won. He tried to improve his control of the country by forcing northerners out of the security forces, and have millions of them declared foreigners, and ineligible to vote.

This led to the first round of fighting in 2002. The French sent in troops, to at least prevent escalation, and with UN help, a ceasefire was achieved in 2003. But in late 2004, the ceasefire was broken with government air raids on rebel bases in the north. There were several dozen casualties, and a rebel controlled TV station was damaged. A resumption of the ground war was prevented by 6,000 UN peacekeepers, and 4,000 French troops, patrolling the 400 kilometer long border between government controlled southern Ivory Coast, and the rebel controlled north. The UN stopped all humanitarian work in the country for a while. Southern troops were prevented from going north by peacekeepers, but northerner supporters in the south were attacked. The southerners also hired some Su-25 ground attack aircraft (along with pilots and maintenance personnel) from Belarus, and these were used to attack French troops, killing nine of them. The French retaliated, wiping out the southerner's air force, and creating a rift between the nationalist southerners and France. Belarus was told to stop the gunrunning, and promised that it would run guns no more. Belarus is believed to be home base for several international gunrunning organizations. While Belarus is officially against this sort of weapons trafficking, everything is for sale in Belarus, including large stores of Cold War era weapons, and the temporary cooperation of government officials.
The UN later withdrew its accusations and apologized, and no Mi-24s showed up shooting at Gbagbo's enemies. The UN said that although they received the original tip from a reliable source, they could find no corroborating evidence. There might still be other weapons coming in from Belarus, but nothing as identifiable as helicopter gunships. 





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