Twenty members of African peacekeepers are still missing in Darfur after rebels overran their base in an unprecedented attack that stunned the international force.
The attack Sunday on the Haskanita base in northern Darfur illustrated the chaos in the wartorn region ahead of peace talks later this month - and the dangers that could face a bigger United Nations force due to start deploying in coming weeks.
Darfur rebels have grown increasingly hostile to the struggling 7,000-member African Union force, saying it favors the government side and has failed to protect Darfur civilians. The AU denies any favoritism and has often complained its forces are overstretched and undersupplied - but the attack raises fears that a future U.N. force could face the same bitterness.
In Sunday's attack, around 1,000 well-armed rebel gunmen overwhelmed the small Haskanita base of about 150 troops before dawn after hours of fighting, during which some of the African soldiers ran of ammunition. The battle killed 10 peacekeepers in the deadliest attack on the AU force since it deployed in June 2004.
The rebels looted ammunition and armored vehicles, and it took Sudanese troops to chase them away as AU troops evacuated.
The scene was chaotic at the base Sunday afternoon. AU troops with their belongings were being ferried out by helicopter to safety, while Sudanese troops stood in combat positions nearby.
Inside the camp, tents still burned and an armored personnel carrier was smoldering, as some Sudanese soldiers sifted through the tents, carrying away mattresses, beds and fans. Some could be seen rising from nearby villages, apparently burned amid a government offensive on rebels that has been raging in the area for two weeks.
A group of 23 peacekeepers were still unaccounted for after the attack and were believed to be wandering around the barren area near Haskanita, AU officials in El Fasher, capital of North Darfur state, said.
"We don't think they're hostage, we're hoping they're out there somewhere on the way" to safety, said a senior AU officer involved in the rescue. He and other officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.
Several others who had been missing managed to contact the AU, which was sending out rescue teams to retrieve them, the officials said. AU troops were searching for missing, but the officials would not give details on how the search was being carried for fear of compromising the rescue.
In El Fasher, the head of the AU mission, Rodolphe Adada - who is to command the planned joint U.N.-AU peacekeeping mission - was briefed by the force's military commadner, Gen. Martin Agwai, on what happened. North Darfur's deputy governor and a Sudanese general commanding the zone headed a delegatation to the AU headquarters to give their condolences.
The announcement that new peace talks to solve Darfur's conflict will open on Oct. 27 in Libya has sparked a flurry of fighting between rebels and Sudanese government forces as each try to improve their position ahead of the conference.
"There is a war going on between the rebels and the government, and the AU is crunched in the middle," said a senior AU officer who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The situation is further complicated by long-present splits among the rebel factions. Sunday's attack was believed to have been carried out by a splinter group of the Sudan Liberation Army known as SLA-Unity
The attack on the base came amid a large government offensive on rebels in the Haskanita region over the past two weeks, which saw heavy battles that rebels said also involved the janjaweed, Arab militia allies of the government accused of widespread atrocities against Darfur civilians.
At the base Sunday, plumes of smokes from several nearby burning villages could be seen rising into the air. Forces from the Arab-dominated government have been accused of indiscriminately targeting ethnic African Darfur villagers on suspicions they support the rebels.
The rebels launched their first assault on Haskanita around sunset Saturday, attacking just after the meal that ends the daily fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The AU troops initially repelled them, officials said.
But the rebels renewed the attack with armored vehicles and rocket-propelled grenades - an indication that they have heavier armament than previously believed - and swept into the camp around 4 a.m.
"We battled for hours, but when we ran out of ammunition, we took refuge in this ditch," said a Nigerian peacekeeper who would only give his first name, Aboubakar, because he was not authorized to speak to the media under military regulations. He showed a corner of the camp - riddled with bullet marks and mortar holes - where the AU troops resisted.
Rebels looted several AU armored vehicles and jeeps and took a large amount of ammunition from the base before the Sudanese army routed them out early Sunday, the AU soldiers said.
"It may not be the right political thing to say, but the government forces saved us," said an AU officer, who also asked not to be named because of military regulations.
The 10 AU dead included a police officer from Senegal, two military observers from Botswana and Mali and seven soldiers from Nigeria, AU officers said. An AU statement said 10 were killed and seven wounded.
The situation in Darfur had been expected to improve after U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited Sudan in early September, announcing new negotiations to settle four years of conflict that have killed at least 200,000 people and displaced another 2.5 million.
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir also announced a cease-fire in September, but violence has since increased.
The underfunded AU force is soon to be merged into the more powerful hybrid U.N. force.
The first units of the 26,000-strong joint AU-U.N. force are due to be deployed in October. and the new mission is expected to assume responsibility for the area on Dec. 31.