- The Washington Times - Monday, October 1, 2007

HASKANITA, Sudan — Rebel forces stormed a small African Union base in northern Darfur and killed at least 10 peacekeepers in an unprecedented attack on the beleaguered mission that threatened key peace talks set for this month.

More than 30 peacekeepers were still missing by late yesterday, indicating that the death toll from the attack could rise significantly.

About 1,000 rebels from the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) attacked the base in Haskanita Saturday after sunset when Muslims break their daytime fast for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, AU officers told the Associated Press yesterday at the scene of the attack.

The rebels eventually stormed the base early yesterday, 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 press. He showed a corner of the camp riddled with bullet marks and mortar holes where the AU troops mounted their resistance.

The remaining AU peacekeepers were evacuated from the base under the protection of the Sudanese army, which routed the rebels from the area. Some government troops could be seen plundering goods from the burned-out camp as an AU armored vehicle lay smoldering nearby.

“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.”

Saturday’s raid represents the first time since the 7,000-strong AU mission was deployed in June 2004 that one of its bases has been overrun, although soldiers have been regularly attacked. Several ambushes of AU forces in the past year have been blamed on the rebels.

“There is a war going on between the rebels and the government, and the AU is crunched in the middle,” said an AU officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The rebels did not comment on the latest attack nor did the Sudanese military.

About 130 AU peacekeepers from Nigeria had been stationed at the Haskanita base, but they had been grounded since June because of the insecurity in the area. More than a third of the troops were unaccounted for late yesterday, said AU officials in Sudan.

Speaking in Ethiopia, the African Union”s top peace and security official, Said Djinnit, said 10 peacekeepers were killed in the attack, 10 wounded and about 30 remained missing.

“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 press. “But we’re very worried for some of them.”

Rebel commanders said 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 (JEM), which fights alongside the SLA.

JEM rebels were reported to have evacuated Haskanita a couple of days ago, and AU peacekeepers in the camp said they suspected that 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.

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