KHARTOUM, Sep 30 (Reuters) Armed men attacked an African Union base in southern Darfur killing at least seven soldiers and injuring eight others in the worst attack on the African troops since they deployed in 2004, sources said today.
Last army and Darfur rebel movements blamed each other for the Saturday night attack on the Haskanita base.
''It is the heaviest casualties which we have have ever witnessed since the inception of this mission,'' said AU spokesman Noureddine Mezni. ''There is a feeling of shock.'' An army spokesman said: ''Some of the rebels attacked the AU in Haskanita. They killed seven and eight were injured.'' The spokesman said as many as 40 AU soldiers were thought to be missing, although those figures could not be confirmed.
But the rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) commander in the region, Abdel Aziz el-Nur Ashr, told Reuters they had moved their troops out of Haskanita four days earlier for other operations and blamed the government.
''There was an aggression from Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) from three directions on Haskanita and that attack was from the SAF,'' Ashr said. ''We don't have troops there.'' Haskanita, in the far southeast of Darfur, has seen government bombardment and heavy fighting between the army, militias and rebels.
An alliance between JEM and the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) Unity faction have become the largest military threat to Khartoum in recent months. But there is also a volatile mix of bandits, tribal clashes and militia splinter groups threatening any attempt to achieve peace and stability in western Sudan.
SHADOW International experts estimate some 200,000 people have died in Darfur with 2.5 million driven from their homes. Mostly non-Arab rebels took up arms in early 2003 accusing central government of neglect.
Washington calls the conflict genocide, a term Khartoum rejects and European governments are reluctant to use. Bashir puts the death toll at 9,000.
The ongoing violence is likely to cast a shadow over UN-AU mediated peace talks due to start on October 27 in Libya.
A joint UN-AU peacekeeping force with 26,000 police and soldiers is due to deploy next year to absorb the AU's 7,000 peacekeepers who, lacking equipment and experience, have struggled to defend even themselves against attack.
Mediators have called for a ceasefire ahead of talks. President Omar Hassan al-Bashir said he would abide by a truce when negotiations start but JEM leader Khalil Ibrahim said he would not stop fighting until a peace deal is reached.
SLA founder Abdel Wahed Mohamed el-Nur, popular among Darfur's largest Fur tribe, poses another obstacle to talks. He refuses to attend until a competent UN peacekeeping force is deployed to protect his people and militias are disarmed.
Khartoum rejected a UN force and does not want non-African infantry for the joint UN-AU compromise mission. And despite many agreements and UN Security Council resolutions Khartoum has not disarmed the militias, known locally as Janjaweed, mobilised in 2003 to quell the revolt.
Ashr said the Janjaweed attacked a JEM rebel convoy near the North Darfur capital el-Fasher three days ago in the Jabel Arbaeen area.
''We defeated them and we captured eight cars of the Janjaweed.
About 85 were killed,'' he said.
REUTERS SG RN1623