International and African efforts to ramp up security in Sudan's war-torn Darfur region ahead of peace talks took a heavy blow on Saturday, when rebel groups attacked an African Union base in Haskanita, in southern Darfur, killing 11 AU peacekeepers and injuring dozens more. At least 20 AU soldiers are missing after what has been described as the deadliest attack yet on the AU mission in Sudan since its arrival in 2004. The incursion underscores the increasing animosity of rebels toward AU peacekeepers, whom some see as sympathetic to the Sudanese government.
The Sudanese government had agreed to let UN peacekeepers into the region to complement the AU force earlier this year.
Thirty vehicles overran the base and "property was looted or vandalized" in the attack, reports the British Broadcasting Corp. According to an AU statement, this was the most casualties suffered by the force since it arrived.
Sources told the BBC that the attackers made off with all the weapons and vehicles they were able to take, and burned the vehicles that remained.
The AU statement described the attackers as "a large and organised group of heavily armed men", but did not say whether they were rebels or government troops.
… AU-UN Joint Special Representative Rodolphe Adada said he was profoundly shocked and appalled by the "outrageous and deliberate" attack, which happened on Saturday evening at a base in Haskanita town.
By late Sunday, the remaining AU peacekeepers had been moved out of the base, reports The Daily Telegraph (London), noting that the "attack came just weeks before crucial peace talks to be hosted by Libya."
Fighting between rebels and Sudanese government forces has intensified as each side tries to improve its position ahead of the negotiations.
Many rebel groups believe the 7,000-strong AU force is collaborating with the Sudan government. The soldiers deployed by the AU, an alliance of all 53 African countries, are widely seen as ineffective.
The nationalities of the AU soldiers killed has not been revealed yet, but most of the troops are from Rwanda and Nigeria, said the Telegraph. Seven of the casualties were Nigerian soldiers, reports the Nigerian newspaper This Day. The attack "followed an April shooting by unidentified gunmen that killed five Senegalese AU peacekeepers in Umbaro, in northwest Darfur, near the border with Chad," it said.
The attack also coincides with the arrival of The Elders, "Nelson Mandela's band of roving diplomats, world leaders and entrepreneurs," in Sudan, reports The Times (London). The group, which includes former US President Jimmy Carter, Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu, and Sir Richard Branson, chairman of the Virgin Group, which includes Virgin Atlantic, is scheduled to visit Darfur later this week and meet the Sudanese president, various aid groups, and diplomats "in an attempt to ease the deployment" of a 26,000 strong joint UN-AU peacekeeping force early next year.
But they will find a conflict that is rapidly spiralling into anarchy. Aid agencies say they will be forced to withdraw if security does not improve.
Several rebel factions have said they will not attend next month's talks unless the joint United Nations and African Union force is deployed first.
An AU force of some 7,000 soldiers and monitors has failed to bring peace to Darfur. It has found itself outgunned by rebels and the government's proxy army of Janjawid militias.
While President Omar al-Bashir has said he will declare a cease fire before negotiations begin, "doubts remain, however, about his commitment to the process," said The Times. Hours after the attack, "a government Antonov plane resumed bombings, attacking a rebel town in northern Darfur."
Aid to the region has been hurt by the rising violence. The New York Times reports that the conflict has been transformed from a rebellion into a "free-for-all among dozens of armed groups, with aid workers and peacekeepers increasingly in their sights."
Relief officials said that as those groups splintered, their new factions needed matériel, and that the attack on the peacekeepers might have been intended to seize quality weapons. "It's indicative of the complete insecurity," said Alun McDonald, a spokesman for the Oxfam aid organization in Sudan. "These groups are attacking anybody and everybody with total impunity."
He added that armed groups were "increasingly targeting aid workers to steal their vehicles, radios and logistical stuff." He said the attack on the peacekeepers "sounds quite similar to that, just on a much larger scale."
Mr. McDonald and others expressed concern that the spiraling violence could scare away countries that have been considering contributing troops to the long-awaited United Nations-African Union peacekeeping mission, which is supposed to begin arriving in Darfur later this year.
Rebel groups accused one another and the government of Saturday's attack. Officials of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) denied that the attack had been carried out either by JEM or one of its splinter factions, reports The Sudan Tribune.
"These are militias close to the Sudanese government part of the plan to scare off the peacekeeping forces that are to be deployed to Darfur" said the spokesperson of the rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), Ahmed Hussein Adam.
Adam said his movement condemns the attack because "these forces are coming to help the people of Darfur and it is against the morals of the people there to hurt those who came to help them"
Meanwhile, "an influential member'' of the second group, the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), told Reuters that "if his faction was involved it was a local decision, not ordered by the leadership."
"I have asked the leadership of SLA Unity to withdraw all the troops from the area, to where they can be under the direct control of the military command," (Suleiman) Jamous said.
"And I have asked them to investigate to find out who, if any, SLA Unity commanders were involved. They have attacked the mediators and I offer my condolences to the families of the AU soldiers," said the elder rebel who is not in Darfur.
SLA Unity and a breakaway faction of the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) led by Bahr Idriss Abu Garda have forces in the Haskanita area.
AU force commander Martin Luther Agwai defended the mission's inability to maintain security, let alone defend itself, reports Reuters, saying that "little more could be done without getting desperately needed additional equipment and troops into Darfur."