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Nigeria Releases Suspected Russian Cargo Plane Carrying French Helicopters

On Sunday, France's ambassador to Nigeria said that the plane had been transporting French equipment to Chad to be used in its counterterrorism operation in the region.
Photo by John Murphy

Authorities in Nigeria have allowed a seized Russian aircraft carrying French military equipment that had been detained over the weekend to go on its way.

Officials became suspicious after a private Russian-made Antonov cargo plane landed in the northern town of Kano on Saturday. Upon inspection of the aircraft, they found and seized two Gazelle helicopters, spare parts, a bulletproof jeep, and some maintenance equipment. Authorities also detained the plane's 18 Russian crewmembers and two French officers.


France has since confirmed that the two helicopters belong to its army, and that they were being redeployed from its peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic (CAR) to N'Djamena, the capital of Chad.

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The helicopters had previously been used in Operation Sangaris, a peacekeeping military campaign launched in the CAR in December 2013 in order to restore law and order in the country after fighting broke out between primarily Muslim Seleka rebels and mainly Christian anti-balaka militias. France announced earlier this month that it would be downscaling its troop presence as United Nations peacekeepers are moved in.

In a statement released on Sunday, Jacques Champagne de Labriolle, France's ambassador to Nigeria, said that the plane, chartered from Russian company 224 Flight Unit, was transporting the equipment to Chad to be used in France's counterterrorism operation in the region.

De Labriolle denied that there were any weapons or ammunition onboard the cargo plane. The Gazelle choppers are lightweight multi-purpose aircraft that can be used either for attacks or for light transport.

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The two choppers were intended for use in Operation Barkhane, an anti-Islamist campaign across Africa's Sahel region that is headquartered in N'Djamena. Launched in July 2014, Operation Barkhane replaced another French military campaign, Operation Serval, whose goal was to rid northern Mali of jihadist militants and take back control of Gao, an Islamist stronghold.


In July 2014, the US pledged $10 million to Operation Barkhane to support France's efforts in securing Mali, Niger, Chad, Mauritania, and Burkina Faso from radicals and terrorists.

According to the French Embassy in Nigeria, the Antonov 124 diverted off course to Kano because of heavy air traffic over N'Djamena. This abrupt change of course raised red flags for Nigerian authorities, who remain on high alert following recent attacks by militant Islamist insurgency Boko Haram.

The government's release of the plane was a rapid shift from a sentiment expressed in an article published Monday by the Nigerian news site Daily Post, in which an unnamed Nigerian security official remarked, "Nigeria has no reason to release the aircraft and its cargo until the investigation is concluded."

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Philippe Migault, an expert in foreign policy and Russian defense, told VICE News that there is nothing unusual about a private Russian aircraft transporting French military material. Private Russian cargo companies are typically employed by European militaries wishing to transfer heavy loads of army equipment.

"There are only two countries that are capable of transporting heavy equipment across long distances: Russia and the US," said Migault. "The Americans don't lend out their transport, so European armies have to rely on Russian companies, which hold a monopoly over the global transportation of armored vehicles, helicopters, and heavy equipment."


Migault explained that Russia's monopoly comes from its stranglehold on the Antonov 124 —a giant four-engine plane that was developed toward the end of the Soviet era. The only aircraft to rivaling the capacity of the Antonov is the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy, which is used by the US Army.

Antonovs can transport up to 150 tons of cargo over long distances. In comparison, the latest Airbus A400M, a four-engine military transport aircraft adopted by the French military in 2013, can only carry up to 30 tons.

According to Migault, the incident does not reflect any Russian military-political interests in the region. Despite the Soviet Union's strategic ambitions in Africa, current relations between Russia and the African continent are purely economic and diplomatic, and involve only a small number of countries. It also has relatively few weapons contracts in Africa.

Follow Virgile dall'Armellina onTwitter: @armellina

Image via Flickr