updated 7/9/2008 1:29:53 PM ET 2008-07-09T17:29:53

About 200 gunmen on horseback and in SUVs ambushed peacekeepers from a joint U.N.-African Union force in Sudan's Darfur region, killing seven in fierce gunbattles that lasted more than two hours, U.N. officials said Wednesday.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's office said 22 peacekeepers were wounded in the attack Tuesday on a joint police and military patrol investigating the killing of civilians in North Darfur state. It was the worst attack on the combined U.N.-AU peacekeeping force since it deployed in December.

A group of about 200 assailants riding horses and driving 40 SUVs mounted with anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons exchanged gunfire for more than two hours with the peacekeeping force that included 61 Rwandan soldiers, the U.N. said.

Five Rwandan soldiers and two police officers, one from Ghana, the other from Uganda, were killed. At least seven of the wounded were in serious condition, Ban's office said.

"We are outraged by the attack," Shereen Zorba, deputy spokeswoman of the U.N.-AU mission known as UNAMID, told The Associated Press. "We are not part of the conflict, but a tool to alleviate the suffering of civilians. We try to establish some level of peace and security in the ground. But to drag us in to be part of the conflict is unjustifiable."

Ambushed 60 miles from camp
The gunmen attacked the peacekeepers Tuesday afternoon in an area called Umm Hagiba, about 60 miles from UNAMID's camp in North Darfur. Zorba said the ambush occurred as the peacekeepers were returning to their camp after investigating the recent slayings of two rebels affiliated with the Sudan Liberation Army. She declined to say who was behind the attack.

The U.N. secretary general "condemns in the strongest possible terms this unacceptable act of extreme violence" against peacekeepers, his spokeswoman, Michele Montas, said at U.N. headquarters in New York.

The attack was the deadliest on Darfur peacekeepers since October, when 10 African Union peacekeepers were killed in an ambush on a military base in Haskanita in South Darfur state. Rebels were blamed for that attack.

That attack came before the joint United Nations-AU force took over peacekeeping duties from an all-AU force in the remote western region of Sudan in December with about 9,000 soldiers and police officers.

It is authorized to have 26,000 members, but has contended with chronic shortages of staff and equipment and less-than-adequate cooperation from the Sudanese government.

Little logistical support
The peacekeeping force has been unable to persuade the U.S. and other governments to supply attack and transport helicopters, surveillance aircraft, military engineers and logistical support it needs to safely navigate Darfur.

Last month, four U.N.-AU staffers were assaulted and held at gunpoint in Darfur. One of the staffers was stripped of his belongings, kidnapped briefly and then released by Arab militiamen on horseback, according to a statement from the joint force.

In May, an Ugandan officer was found fatally shot in a vehicle operated by the UNAMID force in North Darfur — the first U.N.-AU peacekeeper killed since the mission deployed in January. UNAMID had described the killing as "an act of cold blooded murder."

U.N. peacekeeping chief Jean-Marie Guehenno has said there was an alarming increase in violence in the Darfur, which also spread recently to the capital Khartoum and said it could escalate further.

Zorba urged the international community to send the mission additional equipment including tactical and surveillance helicopters.

The Darfur conflict has claimed up to 300,000 lives and uprooted 2.5 million people since ethnic African rebels took up arms against the Arab-dominated government in 2003. Critics accuse Sudan of arming janjaweed Arab militias that have terrorized Darfur villages — a charge Khartoum denies.

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