Khartoum 'prevented UN troops evacuating wounded peacekeepers'

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The Independent Online

United Nations personnel based in Darfur have been prevented by the Sudanese government from evacuating their African Union comrades following Saturday's attack which killed at least 10 AU troops.

According to senior humanitarian officials based in Sudan, the UN mission in Sudan (Unmis) – which has 10,000 troops in the south of the country – tried to send a rescue team to the AU's base in Haskanita, North Darfur, in the hours following the attack. But they were denied access by Khartoum and it was several hours before the Sudanese armed forces sent their own troops to Haskanita to evacuate the remaining AU soldiers.

This is likely to cause concern among UN officials preparing for the deployment of a joint UN/AU force later this year.

At least 10 AU soldiers died in the assault, believed to have been carried out by one of Darfur's numerous rebel groups. More than 20 were still missing last night, some 48 hours after the attack. Originally 50 had been unaccounted for.

A force of around 1,000 heavily armed men overran the small base of 150 soldiers on Saturday evening, an hour after sunset. During the fighting, which lasted several hours, some of the AU soldiers ran out of ammunition.

The attack prompted two of the countries contributing troops to publicly consider pulling out. The Senegalese President, Abdoulaye Wade, warned that he would pull his troops out if an investigation found the AU forces were not properly equipped. One of the 10 killed was Senegalese. "I am not going to send people to be slaughtered," he said.

A spokesman for the Nigerian army also said that his country would reconsider its commitment.

The 7,000-strong AU force patrolling Darfur has faced enormous problems since it was first deployed in 2004. It is seriously under-funded and under-resourced.

The force is due to be replaced by a UN/AU "hybrid operation" consisting of 20,000 soldiers and 6,000 police officers. The first UN personnel are expected to arrive in Darfur before the end of the month, although it will not be until early next year that the force is likely to be at anywhere approaching full strength.

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