Rebel forces stormed a small African Union base in northern Darfur and killed at least 10 peacekeepers, leaving behind charred armored vehicles and bombed out barracks in an unprecedented attack on the beleaguered mission that threatened upcoming peace talks.
More than 30 peacekeepers were still missing by late Sunday, indicating the death toll from the attack could rise significantly.
About 1,000 rebels from the Sudan Liberation Army attacked the base outside the town of Haskanita Saturday after sunset when Muslims break their daytime fast for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, AU officers told The Associated Press Sunday at the scene of the attack. The rebels eventually stormed the base early Sunday, they said.
“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. He showed a corner of the camp riddled with bullet marks and mortar holes where the AU troops mounted their resistance.
Some of the surviving peacekeepers appeared shellshocked and said it was difficult to describe the intensity of the onslaught.
Heavily armed attackers
The rebels used armored vehicles and rocket-propelled grenades, an indication that they are more heavily armed than previously believed, peacekeepers said.
The AU troops said they initially repelled the assailants. But the rebels eventually overran the camp at around 4 a.m., peacekeepers said as they recovered from the fighting.
The Sudanese army routed the rebels early Sunday and the remaining AU peacekeepers were evacuated under the protection of the army. By afternoon, some government troops could be seen plundering goods from the burned-out camp as an AU armored vehicle smoldered nearby.
Rebels looted several AU armored vehicles and jeeps and took a large amount of ammunition from the base before the Sudanese army drove them out, AU soldiers said.
“This is the heaviest loss of life and the biggest attack on the African Union mission,” said AU spokesman Noureddine Mezni. “Our troops fought a defensive battle to protect the camp, but 30 vehicles eventually stormed it. ... The camp is completely destroyed.”
At least 200,000 people have been killed in more than four years of conflict in Darfur, a region of western Sudan. The government is accused of unleashing Arab militias known as the janjaweed to fight ethnic African rebels. The janjaweed are accused of the worst atrocities of the conflict including rape and mass killings of innocent civilians.
Darfur rebels also 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.
But Saturday’s raid was the first time since the AU mission was deployed in June 2004 that one of its bases has been overrun, though soldiers have been regularly attacked. There are about 6,000 AU peacekeepers in the region currently.
The announcement that new peace talks to solve the 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.
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.
AU officers said they had observed several Sudanese helicopter gunships and MiG-19 fighter jets taking off for the Haskanita area early Sunday from their base in southern Darfur. U.N. resolutions forbid all military flights over Darfur.
By midday Sunday, plumes of smokes from several burning villages in the same area 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.
About 150 peacekeepers, most from Nigeria, had been stationed at the Haskanita base, but they had been grounded since June because of the insecurity in the area.
“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.
‘The government forces saved us’
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.
Speaking in Ethiopia, the AU’s top peace and security official, Said Djinnit, said 10 peacekeepers were killed in the attack. AU officers said the dead included a police officer from Senegal, two military observers from Botswana and Mali and seven soldiers from Nigeria. At least seven peacekeepers were wounded.
“Some fled on foot and by car and have called us,” said an AU officer in Haskanita, who declined to give his name because he is not authorized to speak to the media. “But we’re very worried for some of them.”
The U.N., AU, France and Britain all strongly condemned the attack Sunday.
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.
The Darfur situation had been expected to improve after U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon visited Sudan early in September and announced new negotiations with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to settle the conflict.
Al-Bashir announced a cease-fire earlier this month, but violence increased in the ensuing weeks.
The underfunded AU force has been unable to stem the fighting in Darfur and will soon be merged into a much more powerful AU-U.N. joint force.
Rebel commanders told AP a few days earlier that they had been involved in heavy battles against government-allied forces in the Haskanita area for the past two weeks.
“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.
JEM rebels said they had evacuated Haskanita a couple of days ago, and AU peacekeepers in the camp said they suspected a splinter faction known as SLA-Unity had conducted the raid.
JEM strongly condemned the attack.
“JEM is not certain about the exact culprits in this senseless attack,” the group said. There was no comment from SLA-Unity.