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A large force of rebels stormed an African Union peacekeeping base in Darfur killing at least a dozen soldiers and wounding several others in the biggest attack on the mission so far, the AU said Sunday.
More than 50 AU peacekeepers and support personnel are missing in action since the attack on the base in northern Darfur just after sunset on Saturday.
"This is the heaviest loss of life and the biggest attack on the African Union mission," said AU spokesman Noureddine Mezni, who could not confirm the casualty figures because the fighting was ongoing.
Officers in the AU force said that a force of 1,000 rebels from the Sudan Liberation Army stormed the AU base in the town of Haskanita just after the sunset fastbreaking meal during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
"There is a war going on between the rebels and the government, and the AU is crunched in the middle," said a senior AU officer who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Darfur rebels have grown increasingly hostile to the AU peacekeepers saying the force is not neutral and favors the government side. There have been several ambushes of AU forces in the past year blamed on the rebels.
The rebels did not comment on the latest attack on the AU base, nor did the Sudanese military.
Rebel commanders, did, however, tell The Associated Press a few days earlier that they were involved in heavy battles against government-allied forces in the Haskanita area for the past two weeks.
"The government has massed five or six janjaweed units who are converging on us," said Abdelaziz Ushar, a commander in the rebel Justice and Equality Movement, which fights alongside the SLA, referring to the camel-riding, pro-government militias that have led the attacks on rebels.
AU officers confirmed that that they had observed several Sudanese helicopter gunships and MiG-19 fighter jets taking off for Haskanita on Sunday from their base in southern Darfur.
The government offensive and rebel counter-offensive in the area, which breach several recent ceasefire commitments, is part of a surge of fighting between the warring factions ahead of new peace negotiations set for October 27 in Libya.
More than 200,000 people have died in Darfur since ethnic African rebels took up arms against the Arab-dominated central government, accusing it of discrimination.
Khartoum is accused of retaliating by unleashing janjaweed militias, which are blamed for the worst atrocities against civilians in a conflict that has displaced more than 2.5 million people.
Saturday's attack represents the first time since the 7,000-strong AU mission was deployed in June 2004 that one of their bases has been overrun.
The underfunded force has been unable to stem the fighting in the war torn western region and will soon be merged into a much more powerful hybrid UN force.
The first units of the 26,000-strong force will be deployed in October and it is expected to assume responsibility for the area on December 31.