In a brazen attack on horseback and from SUVs mounted with anti-aircraft weapons, some 200 gunmen ambushed peacekeepers from a joint U.N.-African Union force in Sudan's Darfur region, killing seven in fierce battles that lasted more than two hours, U.N. officials said Wednesday.
Twenty-two members of the U.N.-African Union force were wounded in the fighting Tuesday. Attackers outnumbered the peacekeepers by nearly three-to-one.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's office said the joint military and police patrol was investigating the killing of civilians in North Darfur state when it was ambushed by militants driving vehicles armed with anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons.
Five Rwandan soldiers and two police officers, one from Ghana and the other from Uganda, were killed.
“We are outraged by the attack,” Shereen Zorba, deputy spokeswoman of the U.N.-A.U. mission known as UNAMID, told The Associated Press.
“We are not part of the conflict, but a tool to alleviate the suffering of civilians. We try to establish some level of peace and security in the ground. But to drag us in to be part of the conflict is unjustifiable.”
Hindered by a lack of crucial equipment, including attack helicopters, the joint U.N.-AU force has struggled to fulfill its mission since deploying Jan. 1 with about 9,000 soldiers and police officers.
The force is authorized to have 26,000 members, but it is faced with chronic shortages of staff and equipment and less-than-adequate cooperation from the Sudanese government.
The peacekeepers mostly patrol the Darfur region, helping protect unarmed civilians in the many camps of the displaced and mediate between fighting factions. But they often have little access to wide swaths of the remote western Sudanese area, roughly the size of France.
The peacekeeping force has been unable to persuade the U.S. and other governments to supply attack and transport helicopters, surveillance aircraft, military engineers and logistical support it needs to safely navigate Darfur.
On Tuesday, a patrol of 61 Rwandan soldiers, 10 civilian police officers and two military observers was on its way back to its camp after investigating recent slayings when it was ambushed, Zorba said.
The U.N. rarely explicitly blames one of the warring factions for Darfur's violence and Zorba declined to say who was behind the attack. But the description that the gunmen were on horseback strongly suggests they belong to the janjaweed militia of pro-government Arab nomads.