KHARTOUM, Sep 30 (Reuters) Ten African Union soldiers were killed and 50 were missing after armed men launched an assault on an AU base in Darfur, the worst attack on AU troops since they deployed in Sudan's violent west in 2004.
Sudan's army and Darfur rebel movements initially blamed each other for the last night attack on the Haskanita base in southeastern Darfur.
But one rebel source said the attack was carried out by breakaway rebel forces who wanted a seat at peace talks due to begin on October 27 in Libya.
''Reports (indicate) 10 killed and 50 missing in action with seven seriously injured,'' said AU spokesman Noureddine Mezni.
''Our camp is completely destroyed,'' he said, adding it was the heaviest casualties suffered since the AU mission deployed.
''There is a feeling of shock.'' Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) spokesman Ahmed Hussein condemned the attack. ''It is not fair that the AU should be attacked in this way,'' he said.
One rebel source said the attack was by breakaway JEM rebels trying to get vehicles, weapons and power, and gain an invitation to talks. He blamed JEM's sacked Vice President Bahr Idriss Abu Garda and former military chief Abdallah Banda.
Another source said they had been working with Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) Unity in the area.
An alliance between JEM and SLA Unity faction have become the largest military threat to Khartoum in recent months.
Abu Bakr Kadu, an SLA Unity commander, denied they were responsible, but said they had been fighting with government forces in Haskanita all day on Saturday until sunset.
''Maybe the AU was caught in the middle of the bombardment during our battles with the government. The government has been moving using the AU as cover and they are still inside Haskanita near the AU base,'' he said.
The AU said the attack began yesterday at 2200hrs IST, after sunset.
SHADOW The latest violence to threaten Darfur's fragile peace process came as a group of international ''elders'' was due in Sudan today to put their hand to resolving the conflict in Darfur and growing tensions in the country's south.
South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former US President Jimmy Carter, Machel, and peace mediation veteran Lakhdar Brahimi, accompanied by British businessman Richard Branson, were due today in Sudan for the start of a trip that will take them to Darfur and the southern capital Juba.
''This is not just a quick trip for The Elders V we want the suffering to end V and we hope to contribute to that,'' Tutu said ahead of the trip.
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.
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 in Libya.
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.
Reuters SG GC1951