By Michelle Nichols
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Sudan's government has violated U.N. sanctions on the Darfur region by carrying out air strikes and using aircraft from Belarus and Russia despite pledging not to in the vast arid area in the country's west, U.N. experts say.
The U.N. Security Council's independent panel of experts - who monitor sanctions imposed on Darfur in 2005 - also said it was investigating whether Sudanese troops had violated the sanctions by using Iranian armored personnel carriers in Darfur.
Mainly African tribes in Darfur took up arms against the Khartoum government in 2003, complaining of political and economic marginalization. African Union peacekeepers were deployed in 2006 and replaced in 2008 by a joint AU-U.N. force.
In a report to the Security Council's committee on Sudan, made public on Friday, the panel said Sudan violated a Security Council resolution and written pledges to Belarus and Russia to not use aircraft purchased from them in Darfur by carrying out "aerial bombardments and intimidating flights."
"The panel received reliable information that the Sudanese armed forces had conducted several offensive military overflights and bombardments in Darfur using Antonov aircraft, Mi-24 attack helicopters, MiG-29 aircraft and Su-25 aircraft," said the report, which covers most of 2012.
The panel said the Sudanese government told them that the aircraft "had only limited-scale use and were in conformity with the rights of a sovereign state" and that "it emphasized that it would never use, nor had it previously used, its Darfur-based aviation assets to target its own people."
The arms embargo does not ban supplying military hardware, but countries must have a Sudan government guarantee that equipment and arms will not end up in Darfur.
The Security Council warned earlier this month that foreign military support such as spare parts, weapons systems and other materiel may be used in Darfur to support the aircraft deployed there in violation of Darfur sanctions.
The panel of experts report said that Sudan had started using a new weapons system - S-8 air-to-ground rockets - that Khartoum had purchased from Belarus in 2011 and promised not to use in Darfur in violation of the arms embargo.
"The panel observed many locations in the general area east of the Jebel Marra massif where remnants of these weapons are present," the report said.
During a visit to Darfur in December 2012, the panel also said it saw an unfamiliar type of armored personnel carrier at a Sudanese armed forces position. It said research showed the vehicle appeared to be a Rakhsh, manufactured in Iran by the Shahid Kolah Dooz Industrial Complex.
"The presence of this vehicle in Darfur is quite possibly an embargo violation. The panel is making further inquiries," the report said.
The panel saw Su-25 fighter jets - delivered to Sudan from Belarus between 2008 and 2010 - in Darfur, along with Mi-24 military attack helicopters bought from Russia in 2011. Russia and Belarus had both been given written pledges by Sudan that the aircraft would not be used in Darfur, the panel said.
Among several recommendations made by the panel, one was that states exporting military aircraft to Sudan "incorporate an electronic-tracking system ... to ensure that they are not used in violation" of Darfur sanctions and that the exporting states report any violations.
(Editing by Philip Barbara)