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Indian Army colonel in UN peacekeeping operation injured in South Sudan

SPLA soldiers redeploy south from the Abyei area in line with the road map to resolve the Abyei crisis.

As the UN peacekeeping operations in South Sudan struggles with inadequate resources and widening mandates, an Indian Army colonel was injured in crossfire between two warring groups there on Thursday, according to sources monitoring the mission in New York.

They said the officer was injured in the region of the back of the neck, but not seriously, when a camp in Malakal was hit. Indian peacekeepers are deployed there to protect several thousand refugees.

The Secretary General’s spokesperson, Stephane Dujarric, confirmed that a peacekeeper was injured but could not identify him or his nationality. “The UN Mission reports new firing outside of its compound in Malakal,” he said. “One peacekeeper was injured.”

India’s Permanent Representative Asoke Kumar Mukerji had warned the Security Council last week about the deteriorating situation there in two letters to its president, Raimonda Murmokaite that IANS has seen.

On May 20, he wrote, “It is extremely important that the Security Council take urgent action to prevent any casualties and collateral damage with regard to the Indian troops and internally displaced people (IDPs)” or refugees.

The attack occurred hours before the Security Council voted to extend the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) till November end and authorised it “to use all necessary means” to protect civilians “irrespective of the source of such violence.”

On Friday, the UN observes the International Day of Peacekeepers.

Of the 2,000 Indian troops in UNMISS, more than 800 are based in Malakal, situated in South Sudan’s oil-rich Upper Nile state that is sandwiched between Sudan and Ethiopia. The region has been wracked by fighting between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir Mayardit and supporters of former vice president Riek Machar Teny of Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in Opposition (SPLM-IO).

The fighting escalated about a week ago when Major General Johnson Olony defected from the government side to Riek Machar’s, taking with him a large troop contigent. Kiir retaliated by moving reinforcements to the area.

Soon afterwards Mukerji wrote to Murmokaite, “The threat is both extremely grave and imminent” and asked for assurance that “every measure feasible will be taken to ensure that casualties and damage are avoided.”

His fears are underscored by the killing of seven Indian army personnel in two separate incidents in 2013 in South Sudan.

Diplomatic sources familiar with the situation in South Sudan said that the a political solution to the conflict was essential to bring peace to the area and the peacekeeping operation could not by itself achieve that. One of them paraphrased UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s quip, “You can’t keep peace if there is no peace” to emphasise the point.

Ban in a report to the Security Council last month conceded that there was a “lack of progress towards securing a peaceful settlement of the conflict.”

The sources faulted the Security Council, which does not adequately consult with troop-contributors, for not taking stronger measures to push the warring sides to a political settlement.

The peacemaking process has virtually been outsourced to a seven-nation East African organisation, Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), which has so far failed to broker an enforceable peace.

Earlier this month, IGAD admitted it was “deeply frustrated by the spread of violence to Upper Nile.”

Ban has also not given the South Sudan crisis the same level of attention as he has to others like Yemen.

Asked Thursday if the Ban plans to reinvigorate the peace process there, his spokesperson, Dujarric, deferred to IGAD, saying, “It’s something that IGAD continues to be in the lead. We are supportive of that process.”

Although the Security Council adopted the 4,600-word resolution backing the peacekeeping mission and emphasising its mission to protect civilians, the operations are hamstrung by lack of resources and logistical foresight, sources familiar with UNMISS operations said. This makes the peacekeepers vulnerable to attacks and the UN efforts there ineffective.

Recounting the conditions under which the Indian peacekeepers operate, a source who has seen the operations first hand, said that although the Security Council tells them “to use all necessary means,” they are virtual sitting ducks when they come under crossfire.

This is because they cannot retaliate as that would lead to direct attacks that could endanger the civilians they are protecting. “Best bet is to lie low and not do anything unless they are directly attacked,” the source said.

As a protection against mortar and heavy weapon fire, they need bunker-like defensive structure, which the UN and South Sudan government do not want built as that would appear to make the UN compounds sheltering the refugees permanent installations, the source said.

Due to lack of planning and logistics, most of the 5,000 personnel brought in during the troop surge authorised by the Security Council last year are still sitting in Juba, the country’s capital in the south instead of being deployed to areas needing them, the source said.

As result the peacekeepers in the conflict areas are stretched thin and pinned down guarding the refugees, rather than going out on confidence-building patrols. The patrols, undertaken on the ground or from the air, are an important element of the Security Council mandate because they also bring along staff from other UN agencies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) for outreach activities.

Transportating troops, supplies and relief for refugees difficult because South Sudan has few roads. The Upper Nile state depends mostly on river transport and convoys require armed escorts, which are in short supply.

Bangladesh has contributed a riverine unit from its navy, but it is only now being deployed, the source said, and may vessels on dry docks.

More helicopters and aircraft suitable for operating there are needed.

Peacekeepers’ movements are also restricted by the South Sudan government, the source said. Often, when they are cleared by the government, they also have to coordinate with opposition forces to ensure they are not attacked, the source said. But they do come under sporadic attacks.

Mukerji pointed out to he Security Council president in a letter last Friday that a camp at Melut in Upper Nile state ran out of water and the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army was not allowing the peacekeepers to fetch water from the river.


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Operation Meghdoot: Role of Indian Air Force

Indian Air Force backed the Indian Army during Operation Meghdoot by supplying troops and stores

Ensign of Indian Air Force. Wikimedia commons
Ensign of Indian Air Force. Wikimedia commons
  • Operation Meghdoot’s objective was to capture the Siachen Glacier.
  • Indian Army expeditions were going on in the high-altitude region.
  • IAF was tasked with supporting the troops with backup and supplies.

Operation Meghdoot was launched in 1984, it aimed to capture the Siachen Glacier. It was quite a unique operation because of Siachen’s dreaded terrain and unforgiving climate. The mission was a successful one, India gained control over the Siachen Glacier.

India now controls the 70 kilometres long glacier and the three major passes west of it (Sia La, Bilafond La, and Gyong La. Whereas Pakistan controls the area west of Saltoro Ridge. The TIME magazine states, India has control over 1,000 square miles of territory because of its exceptional military operation.

You may also like: 20 Amazing Facts About Indian Navy

Siachen glacier, known as the third pole of the world, is one of the most dreaded places in the world. Mainly due to its temperature and terrain. Wikimedia commons
Siachen glacier, known as the third pole of the world, is one of the most dreaded places in the world. Mainly due to its temperature and terrain. Wikimedia Commons

IAF had played a major role in this operation. It used Il-76, An-12, and An-32 to transport troops and drop supplies to these extremely high altitude battlefields. Following which, Mi-17, Mi-8 and HAL Chetak would carry the same to the east.

IAF’s performance was incredible, taking into account how extreme the temperature and altitude are at Siachen. The operation is a saga which showcased such skill that can never be forgotten.

IAF's uncompromising valour made it possible for the Indian Army to capture the Siachen Glacier. Wikimedia commons
IAF’s uncompromising valour made it possible for the Indian Army to capture the Siachen Glacier. Wikimedia Commons

Role of Indian Air Force

When the first IAF sortie was launched to Siachen on 20th September 1978, Chetak helicopters used to supply stores to the on-ground Indian Army. That’s when a thought occurred to one of the IAF officers “Why not pick their emails for their loved ones back home?” They used to drop a string with a note saying “We are coming back in 10 minutes. Please write your letters and put them in a bag.”

This kind gesture of the Indian Air Force symbolized the brotherhood of ‘men in arms’. It also boosted the morale of Indian Army troops who were leading expeditions on the ‘third pole of the world’.

Also read: All you want to know about the ranks of Indian army

IAF operates from 60 bases across the country. Wikimedia commons
IAF operates from 60 bases across the country. Wikimedia Commons

IAF helicopters used to fly at the height of 16,000 feet, many times, the officers had to take oxygen directly from the pipe. They also had the job of taking injured troops back to base camp. However, it isn’t as simple as it sounds.

Finding the expedition parties in the never-ending desert of ice, then landing the helicopter on the lumps of snow were tasks that required unmistakable skill.

IAF is the fourth most powerful air force in the world. Wikimedia commons
IAF is the fourth most powerful air force in the world. Wikimedia Commons

How IAF operates in Siachen now

Indian Air Force has a far different set of procedures than that of the time of Operation Meghdoot. The operations are scientifically planned and executed meticulously.

  • IL-76s and An-32s supply stores to the men in Leh and Thoise from Chandigarh.
  • Thereafter, Mi-17 helicopters airdrop supplies to the lower level helipads at 17,500 feets.
  • Cheetahs then take over and ferry the supplies to helipads situated at 20,000 feet.