NAIROBI (Reuters) - (This February 5 story was corrected in first paragraph to say that WFP said the helicopter landed in a rebel-held region. Paragraph 4 clarifies that the government said the plane landed in the area by mistake.)
A South Sudanese civil servant and two humanitarian workers have been freed by rebels who detained them when their U.N. World Food Program helicopter landed in a rebel-held region, a WFP spokeswoman said on Thursday.
The incident came at a sensitive time in the world’s newest country with President Salva Kiir and rebel commander Riek Machar seeking to seal a deal to end a conflict that has ravaged the oil-producing state since December 2013.
WFP said in a statement that the three had been picked up.
The agency said the plane was following its regular route at the time of the incident, but a government official said the plane had landed in a rebel-controlled area by mistake.
“It is unacceptable to harass or detain people traveling on a humanitarian asset,” WFP said. “We call on all parties to recognize and respect the neutrality of these humanitarian flights and to refrain from interfering with the delivery of lifesaving humanitarian assistance to people in need.”
The helicopter was carrying Isaiah Chol, chairman of South Sudan’s statistics and census commission, and two South Sudanese employed by the Lutheran World Federation.
They were meant to fly from one government-controlled area to another in the Jonglei region but landed instead in a rebel-held region, government officials said.
The Lutheran World Federation said two of its international workers were on the same helicopter but were not detained.
Rebel officials could not immediately be reached for comment.
Reporting by Edith Honan; Editing by Edmund Blair/Mark Heinrich