KHARTOUM (Reuters) - A Darfur town has been burned to the ground and its residents forced to flee, days after 10 African Union troops were killed there in an attack, a joint United Nations/African Union mission said on Sunday.
The report confirmed rebel statements to Reuters on Friday that the remote southeastern settlement of Haskanita had been all but destroyed. But it did not repeat accusations from insurgents that the Sudanese army was behind the destruction.
More than 7,000 residents of Haskanita fled into the bush or to other towns after it was torched, a spokeswoman for the U.N. said, adding a huge aid operation would be needed to bring them food, shelter and water.
The only buildings to survive were a mosque and a school.
No one was immediately available for comment from the Sudanese armed forces, although state media confirmed government forces had moved into the town soon after the attack on the African Union troops.
A large armed group attacked a small African Union base in Haskanita on September 29, killing seven Nigerian peacekeepers and three other soldiers from Mali, Senegal and Botswana.
The raiders destroyed buildings, vandalised AU armoured personnel carriers and stole arms.
An U.N./AU inspection team visited Haskanita on Saturday and said: “The town, which is under the control of the government, was completely burned down, except for a few buildings.”
It said Haskanita’s market had been looted and most of the town’s civilian population had fled. Just a few townspeople had returned to scavenge for food and water. The U.N. report on the mission did not blame any party for the town’s destruction.
Suleiman Jamous of the Darfur rebel Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) Unity faction, told Reuters many people had been killed. Rebels leaders put the number on Friday at least 100.
“All the villages near Haskanita have evacuated either to the bush or nearby towns. They evacuated their villages after they heard what happened to Haskanita,” said Jamous, who blamed the government for the destruction of the settlement.
News of the attack came as the African Union said they were planning to rebuild their base near the town, and defend the new outpost with predominantly Nigerian soldiers.
African Union force commander Martin Luther Agwai said the quick reconstruction would revitalise his men and send out a clear message to forces behind the armed attack that the African Union forces across the region had not been defeated.
The African Union is investigating who was behind the September 29 attack. Rebel splinter groups have been blamed, although key insurgent commanders have denied ordering an attack.
Experts estimate 200,000 people have died and 2.5 million driven from their homes in more than four years of conflict in Darfur - figures that Khartoum disputes.
The violence in Haskanita comes just three weeks ahead of planned peace talks in Libya between the Sudanese government and Darfur’s fractious rebel groups. Sudanese state media on Sunday reported that Libya had shifted the venue from the capital Tripoli to the town of Sert.
Reports of violence in Darfur have continued to emerge in the run up to the negotiations.
The U.N. reported four armed men hijacked a U.N. car as it drove with another vehicle to the North Darfur town of Kutum on Friday. The same day, the U.N. said, a government military convoy was ambushed by an armed group on a road 90km west of the North Darfur capital el Fasher.
Additional reporting by Opheera McDoom in Khartoum