Senegal threatens to withdraw troops from Darfur

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KHARTOUM, Oct 2 (Reuters) Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade said he would pull his country's troops out of Darfur if it was determined that African peacekeepers who were killed at the weekend were not equipped to defend themselves.

Twenty AU soldiers were killed or injured and nine missing after a ''deliberate and sustained'' assault on the Haskanita base in Darfur on Saturday night by armed men in 30 vehicles, who looted and destroyed the base, the African Union said.

The attack, which is being blamed on rebel factions, was the worst single attack on AU forces since the 7,000-strong mission was deployed to western Sudan in 2004.

''If they died because they didn't have the arms to defend themselves, I will withdraw all the Senegalese ... I am not going to send people to be slaughtered,'' he said yesterday, adding he had ordered an investigation into the attack.

The AU has long complained of a lack of equipment in Darfur, including attack helicopters and rapid response vehicles. They have also said their force was too small to contain the conflict in the vast and arid region the size of France.

Senegal has one of the largest contingents in Darfur and has taken casualties in the past. Most of the infantry in Haskanita was Nigerian but military observers were from various countries.

AU spokesman Assane Ba said seven of those killed were Nigerian, one Senegalese, a Malian and one from Botswana.

''AU peacekeepers will remain in Darfur until the United Nations-African Union Hybrid Operation will be deployed,'' he said from AU headquarters in Ethiopia.

Officials said that around 50 soldiers were missing but most were found yesterday night with nine still unaccounted for.

While AU convoys and individuals have been ambushed -- around 40 killed in the three years prior to the Haskanita attack -- this was the first time an entire base was targeted.

AU force commander Martin Luther Agwai said the mission was making contingency plans and reassessing security. But he said little more could be done without getting desperately needed additional equipment and troops into Darfur.

''People did deployment on the premise that there was an (peace) agreement and they were coming to inspect and act as observers -- there was no planning for people to be able to defend themselves,'' Agwai said.

URGENCY Experts estimate 200,000 people have died and 2.5 million driven from their homes as mostly non-Arab rebels in Darfur took up arms in early 2003 accusing the government of neglect.

Khartoum mobilised mainly Arab militias to quell the revolt.

The AU mediated a peace agreement between the Sudanese government and Darfur rebels in May 2006 but only one of three rebel negotiating factions signed the deal. Since then, rebels have split into a dozen factions.

The violence, which includes militias and tribal conflicts, has severely curtailed the world's largest aid operation.

Saturday's attack casts a shadow on AU-UN-mediated talks due to begin in Libya on Oct. 27. Condemnation of the attacks came in from around the world.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the violence underscored the urgency of the AU-UN mission.

''Obviously what the president (George W Bush) wants is that U.N. peacekeeping force to get there as soon as possible because we are committed to ending the violence and providing assistance to the people who are suffering there in Darfur,'' she said.

Suleiman Jamous of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) Unity faction, one of two groups accused of the attack, said if his faction was involved it was a local - not leadership - decision.

''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,'' Jamous said.

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.

SLA Unity political head Abdallah Yehya denied any of his forces were involved, blaming militias allied to the army.

''All my forces are now far away from the area. This was the government and militias,'' he told Reuters.

The attack preceded a visit of ''elders'' to Sudan, including South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, ex-US President Jimmy Carter, veteran peace mediator Lakhdar Brahimi and women's and children's rights advocate Graca Machel. On Monday they met Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir.

Reuters MP VP0536

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