Monday, April 02, 2007

Five African Union peacekeepers killed in Darfur

Source: CNN.

KHARTOUM, Sudan (Reuters) -- Unidentified gunmen killed five African Union peacekeepers in the Darfur region of western Sudan, the deadliest single attack against the force since late 2004, an AU spokesman said Monday.

The five were guarding a water point near the Sudanese border with Chad when they came under fire Sunday, Noureddine Mezni said. Four soldiers were killed in the shooting, and the fifth died of his wounds Monday morning.

Three gunmen also were killed, he said.

"We strongly condemn this cowardly attack against the very people who are working hard to achieve peace in Darfur," Mezni told Reuters. "It was totally unprovoked."

The new bloodshed came after the new U.N. humanitarian chief, John Holmes, said during a visit to the region last month that aid efforts in Darfur -- the largest in the world -- could collapse if the situation keeps deteriorating.

Asked if the assailants' bodies were identified, Mezni said: "An investigation is under way, and there will be a statement with more details."

The killings bring to 15 the number of African Union personnel killed in Darfur since the troops were deployed in late 2004. A senior Nigerian officer working with the mission has been missing since he was kidnapped in December.

The African Union operates an overstretched 7,000-strong force in Darfur. Sudan has rejected the deployment of a larger U.N. force in the region, where violence has persisted despite a 2006 peace agreement between the government and one rebel faction.

Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir on Monday reiterated his position that the AU had the main security responsibility for Darfur but said a "dialogue" was under way on other issues.

Sudanese officials recently said they were willing to review U.N. proposals for easing the violence in Darfur, where AU forces have failed to tackle the bloodshed.

Al-Bashir stressed, however, that the key to ending the conflict in Darfur rests with the Sudanese.

"The solution to the Darfur issue must be a national responsibility, with the sons and daughters of Sudan," al-Bashir told parliament.

The U.N. Mission in Sudan condemned the attack, stressing in a statement "the urgent need to identify those responsible for the attacks ... and to hold them accountable to the fullest extent of the law."

That may not be easy. U.N. officials and aid workers say all types of armed groups are exploiting Darfur's chaos, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to tell them apart.

Experts estimate that around 200,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million have fled their homes since the conflict flared in 2003, when rebels took up arms against Khartoum, charging it with neglect. The government says 9,000 people have died.

Darfuris say government-backed Janjaweed militias have stormed through their villages, killing, raping and burning down their huts. The government says it has no ties to the Janjaweed, which it calls outlaws.

The attack on AU forces came a day after a helicopter carrying the African Union deputy force commander came under fire on its way from western Darfur to the force's headquarters in El Fasher, the region's biggest town.

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