Seven Tanzanian peacekeepers were killed during an ambush on Saturday in Sudan’s Darfur region, the African Union-UN Mission (UNAMID) said, the worst-ever losses in the five-year history of the operation.
“Seven peacekeepers were killed and 17 were injured,” UNAMID’s acting spokesman Christopher Cycmanick told news agency AFP. A later UN statement identified them as Tanzanians.
The ambush occurred about 25 kilometres west of another UNAMID base at Khor Abeche, Cycmanick said.
“The UNAMID team came under heavy fire from a large unidentified group. Following an extended firefight, the patrol was extracted by UNAMID reinforcements”, a statement said.
It added that the attack began at 9am (0600 GMT) and the wounded included two female police advisers. Such advisers are typically unarmed.
UN leader Ban Ki-moon denounced the killings.
“The secretary general was outraged to learn of a deadly attack on peacekeepers in Darfur which occurred this morning,” said UN spokesman Martin Nesirky.
Ban sent “deepest sympathies” to the families of the dead and the Tanzanian government.
“The secretary general condemns this heinous attack on UNAMID, the third in three weeks, and expects that the government of Sudan will take swift action to bring the perpetrators to justice.”
UNAMID chief Mohamed Ibn Chambas also condemned “this heinous attack”.
Earlier this month three Nigerian peacekeepers were wounded and an ambulance with their patrol was shot up in Labado, east of Nyala, Herve Ladsous, the UN’s undersecretary general for peacekeeping, said during a visit to Sudan.
About 50 UNAMID members have died in hostile action since the mission began late in 2007. Before Saturday’s attack, six peacekeepers had been killed in Darfur since October.
Despite repeated UN calls for the perpetrators to be brought to justice however, UN sources say they are unaware of anyone having been held accountable in Sudan for killing a peacekeeper.
In April, a Nigerian peacekeeper was killed and two others wounded in an assault on their base east of Nyala.
The authorities denied suggestions from local sources that the attack appeared to have been planned and carried out by government-linked forces.
A UN panel of experts earlier this year reported that former government militia fighters had sometimes expressed their discontent with the current government by “direct attacks on UNAMID staff and premises”.
Rebels have been fighting for 10 years in Darfur and have contributed to some of the unrest this year.
But UNAMID chief Chambas blamed inter-ethnic fighting for most of the violence, which has displaced an estimated 300,000 people this year - more than in the last two years combined.
UN experts, rights activists and tribal leaders have accused government security forces of involvement this year’s tribal fighting.
But Chambas said the nature of the disputes - mainly competition for land, water and mineral rights - made it hard to tell who was on which side, as police and militia also had ethnic affiliations
A diverse group of critics, from rebels to Darfur’s top official, Eltigani Seisi, have expressed concerns about UNAMID’s ability to safeguard the population in Darfur.
On Saturday one humanitarian source told AFP the latest incident would make UNAMID more cautious.
“The only thing they will do in future is to make sure they stay safe, rather than investigating anything,” said the source, asking for anonymity.
During his visit to Sudan this month Ladsous responded to the critics by saying that UNAMID, with about 20,000 military and police officers, “has the inherent robustness to deal with the situation”.
But he admitted there have been a few cases where the peacekeepers’ actions did not meet expectations.
In October last year, four Nigerian peacekeepers were killed in an ambush near El-Geneina in West Darfur. At that time it was the deadliest attack in UNAMID history, UN sources said.
Rebels began their uprising against the Arab-dominated Khartoum regime in 2003.
Security problems have more recently been compounded by the inter-tribal fighting, kidnappings, carjackings and other crimes, many suspected to be the work of government-linked militia and paramilitary groups.