KHARTOUM Unidentified gunmen killed five African Union peacekeepers in the Darfur region of western Sudan, the deadliest single attack against the force since late 2004, the AU said on Monday.
The five were guarding a water point near the Sudanese border with Chad when they came under fire on Sunday, an AU spokesman said. Four soldiers were killed in the shooting and the fifth died of his wounds on Monday morning.
Three gunmen were also killed, he said.
The chairman of the African Union Commission, Alpha Oumar Konare, warned in a statement that continued violence raised the possibility "for a catastrophic and tragic breakdown of the security and humanitarian situation in Darfur".
"If this trend continues, the peacekeeping operation in Darfur will be in serious jeopardy," the statement quoted him as saying.
An AU spokesman said the attack had brought the biggest number of casualties for the force in one day since the operation started.
The AU operates an overstretched 7,000-strong force in Darfur. Sudan has rejected the deployment of a larger U.N. force in the region, where violence has persisted despite a 2006 peace agreement between the government and one rebel faction.
The pact has failed to ease violence plaguing the world's biggest humanitarian effort involving around 13,000 people.
The five dead peacekeepers were Senegalese soldiers, part of a national military contingent numbering 538 serving with the AU force, a spokesman for Senegal's army said in Dakar.
Senegal's army said in a statement sent to Reuters in Dakar the attack was carried out by members of the Sudanese Liberation Army (SLA), which had signed the May 2006 peace deal.
But the group's spokesman Al-Tayyib Khamis vehemently denied any involvement.
"We are part of the unity government and we have absolutely no interest in killing members of the African Union who are in Darfur to help. There is no truth to this," he said.
The killings bring to 15 the number of AU personnel killed in Darfur since troops were deployed in late 2004. A senior Nigerian officer working with the mission has been missing since he was kidnapped in December.
The AU statement said it was imperative that U.N. forces were deployed to help the African Union, a proposal the Khartoum government has rejected, saying it amounted to colonialism.
Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir reiterated on Monday his position that the AU had the main security responsibility for Darfur but said a "dialogue" was under way on other issues.
Sudanese officials recently said they were willing to review U.N. proposals for easing the violence in Darfur, where AU forces have failed to tackle the bloodshed.
Bashir told parliament however that the key to ending the conflict in Darfur rested with the Sudanese.
Experts estimate that around 200,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million have fled their homes since the conflict flared in 2003, when rebels took up arms against Khartoum, charging it with neglect. The government says only 9,000 people have died.
Darfuris say government-backed militias known as Janjaweed have stormed through their villages, killing, raping and burning down their huts. The government says it has no ties to the Janjaweed, which it calls outlaws.
The attack on AU forces came a day after a helicopter carrying the AU deputy force commander came under fire.
The AU statement noted that the attack that killed five AU troops was carried out in SLA-held territory while the shooting of the helicopter took place in a stronghold of a SLA rejectionist faction led by Abdul Wahid.
(Additional reporting by Alaa Shahine in Cairo and Diadie Ba in Dakar)