Source AP ©

Rebel forces kill 10 peacekeepers in African Union base

10 peacekeepers were killed in an unprecedented attack of rebel forces on an African Union base in northern Darfur.

Several others were wounded and dozens were missing in action after the attack on the base in Haskanita just after sunset Saturday.

AU officers told The Associated Press in Haskanita that a force of about 1,000 rebels from the Sudan Liberation Army had attacked the small AU base just after the fast-breaking meal during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The AU troops said they initially repelled the assailants. But the rebels eventually overran the camp around 4 a.m. on Sunday, peacekeepers said as they recovered from the fighting.

"This is a terrible incident, we're still trying to understand what happened," said Gen. Martin Agwai, the AU force commander, as he inspected the destroyed base.

Darfur rebels have grown increasingly hostile to the AU peacekeepers, saying the force is not neutral and favors the government side. Several ambushes of AU forces in the past year have been blamed on the rebels.

The attack came as rebels appeared to flee the area around Haskanita because of a large government offensive there over the past two weeks, AU soldiers said.

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.

Ten peacekeepers were killed in the attack, including a police officer from Senegal, two military observers from Botswana and Mali and seven soldiers from Nigeria, AU officers said, requesting anonymity because the casualty toll was not official. Eight peacekeepers were seriously wounded, they said. An AU statement said 10 were killed and seven wounded.

Some peacekeepers tried to leave the camp during the night, and more than 30 were missing in action late Sunday, though a dozen others called to say they evacuated, AU officers said.

"This is the heaviest loss of life and the biggest attack on the African Union mission," said AU spokesman Noureddine Mezni.

Peacekeepers said the rebels used armored vehicles and rocket-propelled grenades, an indication that they have heavier armament than previously believed.

"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.

As the last AU peacekeepers evacuated the camp late Sunday, Sudanese government troops and militias could be seen patrolling the area. Other government troops were sifting through the camp's debris amid the burning tents and a smoldering AU armored vehicle. Some soldiers carried away mattresses, fans and other gear.

"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.

About 150 peacekeepers had been stationed at the Haskanita base, but they had been grounded since June because of the insecurity in the area.

Rebel commanders told AP a few days earlier that they were involved in heavy battles against government-allied forces around Haskanita.

"The government has massed five or six janjaweed units who are converging on us," said Abdelaziz Ushar, a commander in the rebel Justice and Equality Movement, which fights alongside the SLA, referring to the militias of Arab nomads that fight alongside the Sudanese army.

Rebels from JEM strongly condemned the attack Sunday, and insisted they had left the area days before it occurred. "JEM is not certain about the exact culprits in this senseless attack," the group said. There was no comment from the rebel faction known as SLA-Unity, which peacekeepers in Haskanita alleged conducted the raid.

The Sudanese army also deplored the attack, saying it offered protection to the evacuating peacekeepers. Despite a few sporadic gunshots, the army appeared in control of the area Sunday.

Plumes of smokes from several 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 situation 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 attack was the first time since the 7,000-strong AU mission was deployed in June 2004 that one of its bases was overrun.

The underfunded AU force has been unable to stem the fighting in the war-torn region and will soon be merged into a 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.

The U.N., AU, France and Britain all strongly condemned the attack Sunday.