KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Ten African Union soldiers were killed and dozens were missing after armed men launched an assault on an AU base in Darfur, the worst attack on AU troops since they deployed in Sudan’s violent west in 2004.
The AU called it a “deliberate and sustained” assault by some 30 vehicles, which overran and looted the peacekeepers’ camp on Saturday night.
Sudan’s army blamed Darfur rebels for the strike on the Haskanita base, which was mainly manned by Nigerian soldiers and military observers from other nationalities.
One rebel commander said the raid was carried out by breakaway rebel forces who wanted vehicles, weapons and a seat at peace talks due to begin on October 27 in Libya.
“The death toll is still 10, but we have eight injured and 40 still missing,” said AU spokesman Noureddine Mezni.
“Our camp is completely destroyed,” Mezni said, adding it was the heaviest casualties suffered since the AU mission deployed. The total number of soldiers at the site was 157.
About 17 soldiers were found wandering near another AU base in the area.
News of the violence drew swift and widespread condemnation.
“The secretary-general condemns in the strongest possible terms the recent attack on African Union peacekeepers in Haskanita, South Darfur and calls for the perpetrators to be held fully accountable for this outrageous act,” the U.N. said in a statement.
The commander of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) rebel group, Abdel Azizel-Nur Ashr, said the attack was by breakaway JEM rebels.
He blamed JEM’s sacked Vice President Bahr Idriss Abu Garda and former military chief Abdallah Banda, working with some members from the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) Unity faction.
An alliance between JEM and the SLA Unity faction have become the largest military threat to Khartoum in recent months.
Abu Bakr Kadu, an SLA Unity commander, denied they were responsible, but said they had been fighting with government forces in Haskanita all day on Saturday until sunset.
“Maybe the AU was caught in the middle of the bombardment during our battles with the government. The government has been moving using the AU as cover and they are still inside Haskanita near the AU base,” he said.
The AU said the attack began at 7.30 p.m. local time (12:30 p.m. EDT) on Saturday, after sunset.
SLA founder Abdel Wahed Mohamed el-Nur also condemned the attack, but said it underlined the need for non-African troops to also be deployed in the joint U.N.-AU force. “The AU came to help us so they should not be attacked,” he said. “But this does show that the AU has no military capabilities.” ELDERS
The latest violence to threaten Darfur’s fragile peace process came as a group of international “elders” -- including South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter -- was due in Sudan on Sunday to help resolve the Darfur’s problems and tensions in southern Sudan.
Tutu said they chose to first visit Darfur because of the “urgency of the conflict and immense human suffering.”
“We want to find ways to contribute to the peace process,” he told reporters in Khartoum.
But Brahimi said they had no new set initiative to resolve the problem, entering its fifth year.
International experts estimate some 200,000 people have died in Darfur with 2.5 million driven from their homes. Mostly non-Arab rebels took up arms in early 2003 accusing central government of neglect.
Washington calls the conflict genocide, a term Khartoum rejects and European governments are reluctant to use. President Omar Hassan al-Bashir puts the death toll at 9,000.
The joint U.N.-AU peacekeeping force with 26,000 police and soldiers is due to deploy next year to absorb the AU’s 7,000 peacekeepers who, lacking equipment and experience, have struggled to defend even themselves against attack.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said the raid “confirms the need to send the African and the U.N. hybrid force (to Darfur) as soon as possible.”
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner condemned the attack as a “murderous and unacceptable act.”
Additional reporting by Tim Hepher in Paris and Alaa Shahine in Cairo