- The Washington Times - Monday, October 1, 2007

EL FASHER, Sudan (AP) — African peacekeepers searched for more than 20 members of their force still missing and feared wandering the wilderness of Darfur today after rebels overran their base in an unprecedented attack that stunned the international force.

The attack yesterday on the Haskanita base in northern Darfur illustrated the region’s chaos ahead of peace talks later this month — and the dangers that could face a bigger United Nations force due to start deploying in coming weeks.

A Nigerian army spokesman said the deadliest attack on peacekeepers in Darfur could prompt his country — which leads the current AU mission — to reconsider its commitment to trying to calm the continent’s hotspots. That also could prove catastrophic for the bigger, joint AU-U.N. force — largely African — that is due to be deployed in Darfur later this month and assume responsibility for the area on Dec. 31.

The United States condemned the attack and called for those responsible to be held accountable. State Department spokesman Tom Casey told reporters that “there is no reason for any forces, whether they are aligned with the government or the rebels, to be attacking AU peacekeepers.”

Darfur rebels have grown increasingly hostile to the struggling 7,000-member African Union force, saying it favors the government and has failed to protect Darfur civilians. The AU denies any favoritism and has often complained its forces are overstretched and undersupplied. But the attack by the rebels and the rescue by the Sudanese military raises fears for a future U.N. force.

In yesterday’s attack, around 1,000 well-armed rebel gunmen overwhelmed the small Haskanita base of about 150 troops before dawn after hours of fighting, during which some of the African soldiers ran of ammunition. The battle killed at least 10 peacekeepers in the deadliest attack on the AU force since it deployed in June 2004. The rebels retained control of the base until early yesterday, when Sudanese government troops arrived and routed them.

The rebels looted ammunition and armored vehicles, and it took Sudanese troops to chase them away as AU troops evacuated.

The scene was chaotic at the base yesterday afternoon. AU troops with their belongings were ferried out by helicopter to safety, while Sudanese troops stood in combat positions nearby.

Inside the camp, tents still burned and an armored personnel carrier was smoldering, as some Sudanese soldiers carried away mattresses, beds and fans. Smoke rose from nearby villages, apparently burned amid a government offensive on rebels that has been raging for two weeks, which have seen heavy battles that rebels said also involved the janjaweed, Arab militia allies of the government accused of widespread atrocities against Darfur civilians.

Twenty-three peacekeepers were unaccounted for after the attack and were believed to be wandering around the barren area near Haskanita, AU officials in El Fasher, capital of North Darfur state, said.

“We don’t think they’re hostage, we’re hoping they’re out there somewhere on the way” to safety, said a senior AU officer involved in the rescue. He and other officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.

Several others who had been missing managed to contact the AU, which was sending out rescue teams, the officials said. AU troops were searching for missing, but the officials would not give details for fear of compromising the rescue.

In El Fasher, the head of the AU mission, Rodolphe Adada — who is to command the planned joint U.N.-AU peacekeeping mission — was briefed by the force’s military commander, Gen. Martin Agwai, on what happened. North Darfur’s deputy governor and a Sudanese general commanding the zone headed a delegation to the AU headquarters to give their condolences.

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.

The situation is further complicated by long-present splits among the rebel factions. Yesterday’s attack was believed to have been carried out by a splinter group of the Sudan Liberation Army known as SLA-Unity

Forces from the Arab-dominated government have been accused of indiscriminately targeting ethnic African Darfur villagers on suspicions they support the rebels.

The rebels launched their first assault on Haskanita around sunset Saturday, attacking just after the meal that ends the daily fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The AU troops initially repelled them, officials said.

But the rebels renewed the attack with armored vehicles and rocket-propelled grenades — an indication that they have heavier armament than previously believed — and swept into the camp around 4 a.m.

“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 yesterday, the AU soldiers said.

“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.

The 10 AU dead included a police officer from Senegal, two military observers from Botswana and Mali and seven soldiers from Nigeria, AU officers said.

The underfunded AU force is soon to be merged into the 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.

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