/ 2 October 2007

Darfur attack: ‘The fighting was terrible’

The 1 000 Darfur rebels waited until sunset, the end of the Ramadan fast, to begin their assault. Some of the outgunned African peacekeepers, caught by surprise, fought back. Others fled into the scrublands, and at the end 10 of them were dead.

The rebels overran the African Union (AU) peacekeeping outpost, seized six armoured vehicles and fled on Sunday morning when the Sudanese army arrived at the base on the outskirts of the town of Haskanita in North Darfur where 157 peacekeepers and support staff were stationed.

”We were just preparing for dinner when the first rocket hit us,” one peacekeeper, a stocky man in his 20s with a sharp nose, told an Associated Press (AP) reporter who arrived at the base hours after the attack.

Another soldier, fighting back tears, said: ”The fighting was terrible. I can’t even describe it.”

The peacekeepers repelled the first rebel attack after dusk, but the rebels returned and a fresh battle raged for hours. Survivors said the rebels used several armoured vehicles and rocket-propelled grenades -‒ an indication they possess heavier weapons than previously believed.

The rebels finally stormed the camp around 4am on Sunday at a time when some of the peacekeepers ran out of ammunition. The peacekeepers took refuge in a ditch in one corner of the camp where dozens of empty shell casings from AK-47s were strewn in the sandy soil. More casings littered the ground near the entrance to the base.

”Once we ran out of ammunition, we all laid down in that ditch,” said Abu Bakr, one of the peacekeepers.

One officer said mortars were also fired, but there was no sign of any craters.

Early on Sunday, the Sudanese army arrived and the rebels left, AU soldiers told AP. It was not clear whether the Sudanese army used force to chase away the rebels.

The rebels looted the camp on their way out, taking six armoured personnel carriers, a dozen jeeps, boxes of ammunition, AK-47s and fuel for the vehicles.

An AP reporter who landed at the base hours after the attack heard bursts of sporadic gunfire in the distance. On a helicopter en route to Haskanita, several clusters of huts were seen smouldering in hamlets, apparently from a government operation against the rebels in the area over the past two weeks.

The scene at the base in the aftermath was chaotic.

Inside the camp, plastic tents where the peacekeepers slept still smouldered, giving off an acrid smell. The shell of a large armoured personnel carrier apparently hit by rocket-propelled grenade fire was still burning, its tyres melted.

RPG fire left craters in the ground and in canteens scattered around. Prefabricated houses that served as the administration headquarters for the base were riddled with bullet holes. Papers were scattered on the ground and tables overturned.

Several Sudanese soldiers in dark olive brown uniforms sifted through the tents, smiling as they carried away mattresses, beds, fans and clothing.

AU troops in brown-green camouflage, some wounded and barefoot, carrying belongings including a refrigerator and computer, were being ferried out by helicopter to safety, while Sudanese troops stood in combat positions nearby. The survivors looked shell shocked and some said it was difficult to describe the intensity of the attack.

”They’re in a state of shock. They looked like people who’ve just survived death,” said the chief of the 7 000-member African Union mission to Darfur, Rodolphe Adada, who is also slated to head a new joint AU-UN force, speaking in the North Darfur capital of el-Fasher.

”This incident is beyond understanding … it has no political rationality,” said Adada.

”It’s unacceptable and it won’t be without consequences.”

Though AU soldiers have been attacked regularly since their mission was deployed in June 2004, the raid on Haskanita was the first time one of their bases has been overrun and the AU said it was the heaviest loss of life.

Most of the 157 peacekeepers on the base were Nigerian but there were also military observers from Botswana, Senegal and Mali.

Ten died in the attack, one was in critical condition and six others were wounded and taken to the Sudanese capital Khartoum for treatment.

Three peacekeepers were still missing late on Monday, believed wandering the dangerous desert in a war zone around the base. Earlier, the AU said 23 peacekeepers were unaccounted for, but by late on Monday, officials said 20 had reached another peacekeeping base.

The AU base at Haskanita is strategically important. It is about 19km from the boundary between Darfur and the neighbouring region of Khordofan. The Darfur rebels have been trying to link up with new rebel groups in Khordofan, where there are large fields of Sudan’s proven oil reserves.

The attack raised new concerns about risks to a planned deployment of a joint African-UN force of 26 000, expected to be much more robust than the current 7 000-strong AU force.

Two key peacekeeping countries, Nigeria and Senegal, said on Monday they may have second thoughts about committing troops. Nigeria and Senegal both lost soldiers in the attack.

Darfur rebels have grown increasingly hostile to the AU force, saying it favours the Sudanese government and has failed to protect Darfur civilians.

Some rebel leaders also said the fighters stormed the Haskanita base because they suspected the AU was giving away their positions to the Sudanese army, which has been bombing the area for two weeks.

The AU denies any favouritism and has often complained its forces are over-stretched and undersupplied.

Several AU peacekeepers who survived the fighting said they were able to identify the assailants as belonging to a splinter group of the Sudan Liberation Army rebels, known as SLA-Unity. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak to the media.

But the SLA leadership said it had not ordered the attack and blamed it on rogue elements in the field.

The United Nations Security Council failed on Monday to agree on a formal condemnation of the attack because of a disagreement over whether to call it a terrorist act perpetrated by rebels. Ghana’s UN ambassador said the council would meet again on Tuesday to work on a presidential statement.

In Washington, United States State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack issued a statement condemning the killing of the AU peacekeepers and calling for a full investigation to bring the perpetrators to justice. The US threatened further sanctions against those targeting civilians or peacekeepers in Darfur and called on all sides to adhere to a ceasefire.

”The conflict in Darfur will only be solved by a negotiated peace settlement,” the statement said. ”We urge all parties to fully participate in the peace process under the leadership of the United Nations and African Union.”

The attack came amid increasing violence in Darfur, where government and rebel forces appear to be fighting for positions ahead of the peace negotiations set to open in Libya on October 27. The government and most of the main rebel factions have said they will attend.

More than 200 000 people have died in Darfur since ethnic African rebels took up arms against the Arab-dominated central government, accusing it of discrimination.

Khartoum is accused of retaliating by unleashing janjaweed militias, which are blamed for the worst atrocities against civilians in a conflict that has displaced more than 2,5-million people. ‒ Sapa-AP