7 Troops Killed In Sudan Ambush

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 10, 2008

NAIROBI, July 9 -- Seven peacekeepers were killed and seven critically injured when their convoy was ambushed in Darfur, the biggest hit so far on the struggling United Nations-African Union force that took charge in January, officials said Wednesday.

The convoy of about 60 soldiers and police officers was attacked Tuesday afternoon along a stretch of desert road by hundreds of gunmen on horses and in about 40 trucks outfitted with mounted machine guns and with antitank and antiaircraft weapons, according to U.N. officials.

A two-hour firefight ensued -- the first time the fledgling peacekeeping operation has used force to try to fend off an attack. Several of the peacekeepers' trucks exploded during the fight. At least 22 soldiers and police officers were injured, and seven of the most severely wounded were evacuated to the Sudanese capital of Khartoum.

The area of northern Darfur where the attack occurred is under Rwandan command, and most of the peacekeepers killed or injured were Rwandan, U.N. officials said.

The ambush was the deadliest against peacekeepers in Darfur since September, when rebel forces killed 10 A.U. soldiers in the town of Haskanita.

Tuesday's attack was the most serious blow yet to the hybrid force, which is struggling with fewer than half the promised soldiers and virtually none of the promised equipment.

One analyst said the force, known by the acronym UNAMID, is at a point of "meltdown."

"There's a feeling of shock, also of anger," said a U.N. worker in El Fasher, where the mission is based. "And perhaps a feeling that things could get worse."

The ambush was indicative of how the Darfur conflict has changed since it began more than five years ago. Instead of a mostly one-sided campaign by government forces against rebels and civilians, the western region of Sudan is now the scene of a multi-sided scramble among rebel factions, the government and tribal militias for trucks and weapons.

"The best way to look at Darfur at the moment is a whole lot of different actors, all of whom are trying to bid up the price of their loyalty," said Alex de Waal, a Darfur expert and program director for the Social Science Research Council in New York. "Whoever is able to do this type of operation is going to have to be bought off more substantially. Darfur politics is being conducted as warlordism."

Officials noted that two groups control the area where the attack occurred: the Mini Minnawi faction of the Sudanese Liberation Army, the only Darfur rebel group that signed a failed 2006 peace deal, and Arab militiamen loyal to the Sudanese government.

The Sudanese government denied any role in the attack. "We are very sad for such incidents to take place," said Rabie Atti, a spokesman for the ruling National Congress Party.

The Sudanese government is bracing for the indictments of top officials, possibly including President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, by the International Criminal Court on Monday. The officials are accused of orchestrating the most brutal episodes of the conflict, which has left an estimated 450,000 civilians dead and 2.5 million displaced.

Some analysts speculated that the attack was punishment for the expected indictments, with the peacekeepers being the nearest symbol of the foreign meddling the government so often cites. Others said the ambush bore the hallmarks of an attack by Minnawi's rebel faction.

The United Nations condemned the ambush "in the strongest possible terms" and called on the government to identify the perpetrators.

In El Fasher, the large town closest to the attack, the mood was grim among aid workers and soldiers.

"This was much bigger than anything that's happened before," said an aid worker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to comment publicly. "People are quite worried about what will happen next."

The peacekeeping force took over from a beleaguered A.U. mission Dec. 31, but little has changed except the command structure; most of the 8,000 or so soldiers on the ground are from the old mission.

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