Gunmen killed at least seven United Nations peacekeepers in the Darfur region of Sudan, U.N. officials said Wednesday. It was the deadliest clash since the world body formally took control of the beleaguered mission from the African Union in January.
The U.N. patrol was ambushed Tuesday afternoon about 60 miles south of El Fasher, the town where the U.N. peacekeeping mission is based, the officials said. The troops were investigating the killings of civilians when they were attacked by dozens of armed men in SUVs.
At least 22 peacekeepers were wounded in the attack, seven seriously. The dead soldiers were from Rwanda, Ghana and Uganda, U.N. officials said.
Ten U.N. vehicles were destroyed, according to SUNA, Sudan’s government-controlled news agency.
The strike was reminiscent of an attack on Darfur peacekeepers in September, when 10 soldiers with the African Union were killed during a raid on a small military base in Haskanita. The attackers, believed to be part of a fringe rebel group, stormed the base in search of weapons and trucks.
Now in its sixth year, the Darfur conflict began when rebel groups in western Sudan attacked government installations, alleging that residents of the region had been marginalized by officials in Khartoum, the capital.
The government is accused of arming local militias, which burned hundreds of villages and drove more than 2 million people from their homes. At least 200,000 people have died in the conflict, according to most estimates.
Under heavy pressure from the United States and United Nations, Sudan’s government last year agreed to allow 26,000 U.N. peacekeepers into Darfur, a substantial increase from the previous level of 9,000 African Union troops.
The international community hoped that a larger, more robust force would help restore security.
However, violence has only worsened in the last six months, including renewed flare-ups between government troops and rebels and a surge in banditry that is hindering efforts by humanitarian groups to deliver food and other aid.
The joint U.N.-AU mission also has suffered because of delays in troop deployments and shortages of equipment, including basics such as toilets and military hardware such as helicopters.
The Sudanese government is accused of foot-dragging in providing needed approval for supplies.
Fewer than 300 additional soldiers and police officers have been deployed to the region this year. The rest are AU holdovers who traded their green berets for blue U.N. helmets.
Tuesday’s attack suggests that the new mission is struggling with some of the same issues as the previous one. AU soldiers were widely criticized by militia groups and displaced people in Darfur as being ineffective or pro-government.
Under U.N. control, peacekeepers substantially increased the number of daily patrols in displacement camps and pursued a “hearts and minds” strategy, handing out candy to children and reestablishing a presence in camps to handle complaints. But those in the camps remained skeptical.
“I don’t see any difference yet on the ground,” Abdulaziz Adam Nur, a rebel leader at Darfur’s Zam Zam camp, said in an interview this year.