DAKAR, Senegal Seven international peacekeepers were killed and 22 wounded in a brazen day ambush by heavily armed men in trucks and on horseback in the Sudanese province of Darfur, U.N. officials said Wednesday.
The attack, on Tuesday, was the deadliest on international forces in Darfur since September 2007, when 10 peacekeepers were killed in an assault on a base, and was a severe blow to the combined U.N. and African Union peacekeeping force that has struggled to protect civilians and itself.
About 200 men in 40 trucks descended on a convoy of peacekeeping soldiers and police officers about 60 miles east of their base in El Fasher, the regional capital, as they returned from patrol. They had been investigating allegations of abuses by a rebel faction allied with the government.
The militiamen had heavy weapons, including anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns mounted on their trucks, and a fierce firefight raged for three hours.
The peacekeepers took heavy casualties. Five Rwandan soldiers were killed, with police officers from Uganda and Ghana, a U.N. official in Sudan said.
Officials did not say who was responsible for the attack, and it has become increasingly difficult to determine who is who in the kaleidoscope of rebel movements and militia groups vying to control Darfur.
The conflict began five years ago as an uprising of non-Arab ethnic groups against the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum. But as the rebel groups and Arab militias have splintered and alliances have formed and faded, the Darfur region has become increasingly lawless and chaotic.
"It is just a free-for-all," said a Western aid official in Sudan, speaking on condition of anonymity because aid workers have faced retribution for talking publicly about the conditions in Darfur. "Security simply doesn't exist."
Attacks on aid workers by rebels, militia and bandits have been on the rise, and aid workers in the region say it is increasingly difficult to provide even the basics to the millions of needy civilians.
Rising food and fuel prices have made it harder still to help the 2.7 million people displaced by the conflict in Sudan and neighboring Chad. The United Nations estimates that 300,000 people have died from violence, hunger and disease since the conflict began.
The new joint peacekeeping force, which took over from the African Union in January and was approved by Sudan after extensive negotiations, was supposed to help protect civilians from harm.
But despite its goal of 26,000 troops, it has little more than a third of that number, most of whom are former members of the African Union force. The soldiers simply painted their green helmets blue.
Further deployments have been stymied by logistical and political problems and stonewalling by the Sudanese government, U.N. and aid officials said.
The prospects of a political solution to the Darfur crisis look equally grim.
The part-time U.N. and African Union mediators who had sought in vain to jump-start the peace process resigned in frustration last month over lack of progress and have been replaced by a full-time mediator for both organizations.
But with the rebel groups fractured and unwilling to unite to seek a settlement to the crisis, peace seems more distant than ever.
"The peace process is going nowhere," said Alex de Waal of the Social Science Research Council in New York. "There is absolutely no incentive for either side to make a move."