Three Ethiopian peacekeepers mortally wounded this week in a land mine explosion died while Sudan refused requests to let them be flown out of the region for medical care, the U.N. peacekeeping chief said Thursday.
Alain Le Roy, undersecretary-general for peacekeeping, told reporters in New York on Thursday that one peacekeeper died instantly on Tuesday when a convoy of Ethiopian troops for the new U.N.-authorized mission deploying to Sudan's Abyei region hit a land mine.
Le Roy said three other peacekeepers wounded in the blast died in the next three hours as the U.N. tried to persuade the Sudanese government to let a helicopter fly them to treatment.
"They prevented us from taking off by threatening to shoot down the helicopter," Le Roy said.
He said "no one can say" if the delay was a factor in the deaths of the three peacekeepers. He added that a board of inquiry is investigating the incident.
Seven other peacekeepers injured in the blast remain hospitalized, and Le Roy expressed hope they would all survive.
Le Roy called the mine blast "another tragedy" underscoring the dangers that peacekeepers face.
A call seeking comment from the Sudanese mission to the U.N. wasn't immediately returned.
Le Roy said the U.N. also was investigating which group had placed the mine, noting that because of long-running conflicts in the region it could have been planted on the road months or even years ago.
U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had met with the permanent representative of the Sudanese mission to the U.N. and other Sudanese officials about the incident. He said Ban stressed that when it comes to saving lives, "any delay is unacceptable."
The U.N. Security Council in late June authorized a 4,200-strong Ethiopian peacekeeping force to deploy for six months in the contested region of Abyei, which lies between Sudan and the new nation of South Sudan. The U.N. troops are to support an agreement between the two governments that calls for demilitarizing the contested border region near major oil fields that both the north and south claim.
The Ethiopian troops began deploying last month and Le Roy, said about 1,200 are on the ground.